With Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent appointment of Phillip Robinson to the bench, the dynamics changed in the race for Davidson County Circuit Court judge, leaving Stan Kweller with a challenge: defeat the governor’s choice.
“Like everything, there’s no straight line to any goal that you’re trying to reach,” Kweller told The City Paper. “But in a Democratic primary, I don’t know how much influence a Republican governor’s endorsement is going to have."
Kweller and Robinson, two family law attorneys who describe each other as friends, are squaring off Tuesday, March 6, in the Democratic primary for the 3rd Circuit Court judgeship formerly held by Barbara Haynes, who retired in the fall. Haslam went ahead and appointed Robinson to the position on Feb. 23, eight days into early voting.
“It’s wonderfully flattering for the governor of the state to say they think you’re the most qualified person for that position,” Robinson said. “It means a whole lot to me.”
The two attorneys are vying to be the judge of circuit court likely to be designated to hear cases involving divorce and child support. The family court under Judge Carol Soloman had undergone scrutiny, but she recently ceased hearing those domestic cases.
“I wasn’t really interested originally in being a judge,” Robinson said. “If this were just a regular circuit court seat, I would not be seeking to be elected to it. It’s because it’s going to be designated a family law court that I decided that I would try to be appointed and be elected to it.”
“I don’t have a learning curve,” said Robinson, who boasts 26 years of family law experience. “I can sit right on that bench tomorrow, and start dealing with those cases.
Though Robinson is a political newcomer, running for office runs in his family. Robinson’s father, Robb Robinson served as a Democratic state representative. His uncle, Garner Robinson, served as a Davidson County sheriff. Gale Robinson, a cousin, is a General Sessions judge. And cousin Muriel Robinson was a circuit court judge.
Kweller, a former prosecutor and attorney for 34 years, said his practice deals primarily with civil cases, and estimated between 65 and 75 percent of his caseload involves domestic relations –– child custody, child support or divorce cases.
“I feel very comfortable hearing those types of cases, and hearing other things to finish Judge Haynes’ docket,” Kweller said.
“What I’ve told people in this campaign is, I intend to treat everybody the way I like to be treated –– with respect and with dignity,” Kweller said. “Whether they’re lawyers or litigants, parties or witnesses. I think that goes a long way in building confidence in the system.”
Besides Haslam’s endorsement, Kweller will have to overcome a poll that suggests Robinson has the support of Nashville attorneys.
Nearly 41 percent of respondents in a Nashville Bar Association poll said they “highly recommended” Robinson for the judgeship, compared to 17 percent who said the same for Kweller.
Lawyers also appear to be more familiar with Robinson. In the same poll, 58 percent said they did not have an opinion on Kweller. Only 32 percent did not have an opinion on Robinson.
The winner of Tuesday’s primary could face an independent candidate in August, but the Democrat would be the heavy favorite.