Vic Lineweaver has felt like a target before.
Beleaguered throughout a now legendary string of legal troubles and bizarre headlines with his name as the subject, Nashville’s embattled Juvenile Court Clerk is convinced that adversaries, perhaps somewhere inside the Juvenile Justice Center on Woodland Street, have long tried to bring him down.
Lineweaver has been cast as incompetent, lazy and just plain odd, and these narratives have produced some lasting images: There’s Lineweaver handcuffed at work after a judge found him in contempt of court for failing to produce court documents; that time a local television reporter filmed him walking to his mailbox in a bathrobe during work hours; and the recent report on Lineweaver’s curious habit of attending funerals and signing family guest books of people he’s never met.
The 55-year-old Lineweaver, likable and friendly, is unafraid to address these moments. He has an explanation for all of them, and he can’t help but wonder why WSMV-Channel 4 has delivered most of the scoops. He contends that people, whom he declines to reveal by name, essentially fed the stories and “set Vic Lineweaver up.”
“They’re very close to somebody that doesn’t want me there,” Lineweaver said of what’s surely his least favorite local news station. “I’ll admit to that. It’s the truth. I’m saying that’s because it’s the truth and so that it’s reported. They’re very close to somebody that didn’t want me there in 2002 or 2006.”
Now it’s 2010, and more than a few people are zeroing in on Lineweaver — 10 others, in fact. Seizing on what they clearly perceive as a vulnerable incumbent, a gaggle of candidates — two Metro Council members, a school board member, a well-connected General Sessions court officer and even a former Tennessee Titans cheerleader — have lined up to challenge the clerk as he seeks a third term.
In a local election cycle that features a host of races that usually go unnoticed to those outside political circles, it’s undoubtedly Lineweaver’s contest that’s generated the most buzz. The first round comes May 4, when the incumbent will try to stave off seven others in a Democratic primary. That winner will then square off in August against the victor of a Republican primary, with Councilman Eric Crafton the favorite.
With six weeks left until Election Day, yard signs big and small have infiltrated Nashville’s corridors; candidates have launched groups with titles like “Women for _____;” and downtown law firms are playing host to donors willing to shell out campaign cash at fundraising events. Contenders, meanwhile, are parading across town, shaking hands at public functions and making their cases for a job that earns an annual salary of $115,000.
For Lineweaver, a self-described “people’s person” known to almost magically pop up at any and every public event in the city, campaigning is a part of life even during non-election years. And though he calls the crowded field “democracy at its best,” one wonders whether a fixture in Nashville politics for decades — elected two different times as a Metro Council member, the first at the age of 25 — is standing on his last political leg.
Problems abundant under Lineweaver
Some observers — even a few candidates — say the clerk position probably shouldn’t be an elected one. After all, the city isn’t appointing a policy-maker but a keeper of legal files.
But in a ruling that came out of a case in Shelby County, the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1988 established that clerks of lower courts shall be elected — and so it is. That hasn’t stopped some vying for the job from using lofty rhetoric, campaigning more as advocates for children than clerks.
“The clerk’s office’s sole responsibility is as the keeper of the records for the courts,” said Davidson’s County’s Juvenile Court Judge Betty Adams Green. “If you love children that’s all well and good, but it’s not a qualification for the clerk’s office.”
Despite the job’s limitations, the political circus that’s followed Lineweaver in some ways blocks a vital artery in the flow of the juvenile justice system. Some 55,000 hearings go through the county’s Juvenile Court each year, suits that deal with child support, custody and visitation rights for unmarried couples; delinquency cases involving children under the age of 18, committers of both serious crimes and misdemeanors; and students who have committed truancy. The Juvenile Court also hears cases on child neglect and abuse.
As a civil court, the mission is to not simply to punish offenders but to rehabilitate young people charged with breaking the law. Asked how Juvenile Court has changed over the years, Green said, “the volume has increased,” adding that crimes charged to juveniles have become much more serious, acts such as homicide, aggravated robberies and sexual offenses.
“If we can’t get the file, we can’t go forward with the case,” Green said when asked the significance of the juvenile clerk’s office. “We are very interdependent on each other. Their job exists because of us. Our job can’t be done without them.”
As has been well documented, the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office has sometimes come off as a bureaucratic mess. A 2006 performance audit revealed the office had been “hampered” by missing pleadings in case files, incorrect computer schedules, incomplete decree sheets, and missing information and paperwork for cases on the docket. A year later, Lineweaver was arrested after he was unable to locate and hand Juvenile Court referees two files pertaining to child custody cases.
“We’ve had ongoing problems,” said Green. “I think everybody knows that. We also understand no system is ever going to be perfect. I am well aware of that. But it’s one thing to have a glitch every now and then; it’s something else to have smooth days be the exception.
“We’re on a page, but I’m not sure if it’s the same one,” Green said of the interaction between her and the clerk’s office. “I think we can do better. Let’s just put it like that.”
Though it’s not the consensus among every lawyer in town, some attorneys familiar with Davidson County’s Juvenile Court have complained that navigating the system is far too time-consuming, causing some to stay away. Making the situation even more troubling, the same people say, is the widespread belief that juvenile law should ideally be the fastest type of law because children are involved.
“I don’t hear that,” said Lineweaver, defending his office, “and I’m usually there at the window listening.”
Lineweaver, who oversees 29 employees and manages a $1.5 million annual budget, said he’s engineered several important changes since his arrival in 2002. Improvements, he said, include lengthening office hours by 30 minutes; scanning all incoming files; and switching from an analog to digital system of recording court proceedings. He added that the office is in the process of rounding up fines that had previously gone uncollected. As another plus, he cited the addition of an ATM machine at the office, which allows people to immediately pay their child support or restitution fees.
Things have gotten better, Green said.
“The glitches have been cut down considerably,” she said, a decline she credits to the installment two years ago of former Metro Councilman Julius Sloss, who serves as the office’s director of operations. But she believes the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office should still aspire to be more like the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, led by Richard Rooker, which she said has more fully transitioned to electronic filing. That method of filing is considerably more efficient than the paper-and-folders technique.
“I see no reason why our clerk’s office can’t function as well as Mr. Rooker’s does in the Circuit Court,” she said. “There, you don’t see 10 people standing at the window waiting their turn to file something. It’s just a matter of management and appropriate use of staff.”
Lineweaver said it would “be a while” before his office could adopt an electronic file search system, adding that he considered implementing CaseLink, the system used in Circuit Court, but opted against it to protect the confidentiality of minors. “It’s also very expensive, and we don’t have the manpower to do it,” he said.
A crowded field
If history is an indicator, voter turnout for May’s Juvenile Court Clerk race will likely be low, as only 29,938 Davidson County citizens voted in the 2006 race. And this time, unlike the last, voters must choose between both a Democratic and a Republican primary; hence, the electorate for Lineweaver’s race should shrink even more.
The crowded field of candidates has perhaps given Lineweaver a significant boost in defending his seat. After all, despite his tribulations, Lineweaver has longtime friends and backers throughout Nashville and could rely on fewer of them to eke out a victory. “It helps some,” Lineweaver agreed.
Though it’s virtually impossible to forecast a race with so many candidates and so few voters, some observers believe the greatest challenge to Lineweaver may come from David Smith, a General Sessions Court officer currently on a leave of absence, who has been running for the seat for more than two years. Smith has raised the most money and has backing from some big names in Nashville’s legal community. Smith, a Democrat who served in former Mayor Bill Boner’s administration, comes from an old political family. His father Mack Smith, a Goodlettsville liquor store owner, played a role in the old East Nashville political scene during the 1970s and ’80s.
Some have suspected Smith also enjoys the backing of Judge Green. On his campaign website, he’s seen photographed with the judge at a campaign function. Asked who she supports in the race, Green declined to say, adding that she’s attended events held by several of the candidates.
Smith said his experience as court officer should suggest he knows the system.
“What isn’t going right?” Smith said of the Juvenile Court Clerk’s office. “I don’t want to say ‘nothing,’ but that office needs a lot of improvement. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Smith, however, hasn’t held an elected office, unlike two other candidates, school board member Karen Johnson and Councilwoman Vivian Wilhoite, both African-American representatives who live in Antioch. The two could presumably benefit from their past campaign experiences.
Johnson, whose school board term expires this year, said she’s the only candidate who has “specific education and training in organizational management” through a master’s degree. Johnson recently stepped down from her position as director of outreach for the nonprofit Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation to compete in this race.
“Much of what has been identified through the audit and through the media reports clearly shows there needs to be greater organization and greater communication to ensure the office is being run effectively and efficiently,” Johnson said. “That’s the key thing.”
Meanwhile, Wilhoite, first elected to the council’s District 29 in 2003, said she would rely on her 20-plus years of experience working at the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, where she said she helped maintain records. Though Wilhoite recognized the abundance of candidates could help Lineweaver, she said she believes most voters want change.
“I think voters want to see the integrity back to that position it so deserves,” Wilhoite said. “There have been some very unwelcoming events that have occurred in its leadership. The staff and department have been working hard, but the leadership is so very missing.”
Other Democrats in the contest are Howard E. Jones Jr., Jeff Brousal, Jeff Crum and Patricia Courts, although they don’t appear to be near the front of the horse race.
The May primaries are, of course, just the beginning. Waiting in the wings for a general election showdown could be Crafton, the Bellevue council member and anointed frontrunner in the Republican contest, which features two other candidates, April Pennington and Annette Crim.
Crafton, who cites his degrees in mathematics and economics, and his ownership of a small business as his credentials, said he’s “ready to give this city an alternative for this position,” maintaining he would bring a different management style and would hope to install new, up-to-date software in the office.
“You could probably ask the candidates what the job entails, and probably only one of them would know the answer, and that’s Vic Lineweaver,” Crafton said. “But I know because I’ve done the research.”
Asked if he would prefer to face off against Lineweaver, as some have suspected, Crafton said, “We’re going to work hard, and I think we’re going to beat anybody who wins that primary.”
He later added, “I think Vic Lineweaver is going to win that primary, quite frankly.”
Answers for indiscretions
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lineweaver sported his American flag pin on his jacket’s left lapel, but he wasn’t wearing his customary necktie. It was dress-down day in the Juvenile Court Clerk office. “It’s a morale builder,” he said in an uncanny Office Space moment. “It helps some.”
Asked what he enjoys most about his job, Lineweaver choked up by the end of his answer.
“The most fun part about it is when you see a family come together and not fight,” he said. “Or you see a young person that has done something wrong, spent a night or two in detention, and they’ve come out, and say, ‘I’m never going to do this again.’ ”
Though he later acknowledged those types of encounters have little to do with his actual job, Lineweaver said his decision eight years ago to challenge then-Juvenile Court Clerk Kenny Norman came “from my heart,” as he adopted his two children, now 19 and 21, through the Juvenile Court system. Now divorced, Lineweaver lives alone in a Bellevue house.
Regarding the files he was charged with losing, Lineweaver owned up to the mistake but said he doesn’t know why he had to be handcuffed, describing the event as “horrifying to me and my family.”
“A number like a six looked like a five, or a zero looked like a six, a one looked like a seven,” he said. “They were misfiled. They were put in the wrong place.” Despite that admission, he pointed out that the nine files asked for by the Juvenile Court referees were all inactive, dormant files. “I was set up with a dormant file,” he said.
According to Lineweaver, “Seven of them were found in 10 to 20 minutes; two of them were missing, and then I was jailed. Before we drove off the parking lot, one was found, the other one was found upstairs.”
Lineweaver, who said he’s never taken a vacation since he began his job, also has an answer for the WSMV-Channel 4 report that found him at home during work hours wearing a bathrobe, or what he calls his “house coat.”
“I was home sick doing some work at home,” he said. “I’m sorry if there was a misquote on the phone with the reporter. In fact, I had just got off the phone with someone at the office, and I was there the rest of the day. They knocked on the door later. I didn’t have anything to hide. I opened the door and said, ‘You all be careful, I’ve got a cold.’ ”
Lineweaver believes someone in his office tipped off the reporter.
“Somebody had to have let them know that I was home sick, and that means somebody in the building told them. And that’s fine,” he said defiantly.
Of the television report that showed Lineweaver’s name inscribed in funeral guest books, he said, “I’ve been doing that for years,” adding it’s his custom to attend funerals of military veterans.
“I sign the book — I don’t sign the first page because the family deserves the first page — then I either send them a card or I’ll call them,” Lineweaver said. “Or I’ll go to the funeral home directly when the family’s there to say hello.”
Asked how many funerals he’s attended, Lineweaver said he doesn’t know. But he’s quick to reel off all the Metro public schools he visited: “All of them.”