Judge Lynda Jones Elected President of the General Sessions Judges Conference

November 4, 2020

Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County General Sessions Court Judge Lynda Jones was recently elected president of the Tennessee General Sessions Judges Conference. Judge Jones has been a member of the conference since her election to the bench in 2014.

Over the course of her judicial career, Judge Jones has used the lessons and experience she learned from 22 years as an attorney to positively impact the lives of those less fortunate who appear in her courtroom. The fruits of that hard work are evident in such innovative programs as the Homeless Court, which Judge Jones helped set up in order to connect homeless people to needed resources and give them a chance to break the cycle of repeated arrest and incarceration.

Judge Jones said that she was grateful to her colleagues for entrusting her with this leadership position and is looking forward to the year ahead.

“It’s an incredible honor to be selected by my colleagues to serve as President,” Judge Jones said. “I’m humbled that they would allow me to serve our entire conference and the citizens across the state of Tennessee. I find this work to be pure joy as I am meeting people from all over the country and am in the heart of policy which will impact Tennessee citizens for decades to come. The issues our state faces during these turbulent times will shape our futures.”

Judge Jones’ passion for the law developed relatively early, when she was, in her words, a 17-year-old “proud Viking at Tennessee High” in Bristol. One of her teachers, Mr. Jenkins, organized a mock trial that was held at the Sullivan County Courthouse. Judge Jones was assigned the role of criminal defense attorney.

While other students ate lunch during the midday trial break, Judge Jones worked on readying questions for the witnesses.

“I was so into it and so intense,” she said. “I just fell in love with preparation.”

She has many indelible memories from that day, including the unusually smooth feel of the wood on the jury box, worn from years of use in the old courthouse.

Most of all, though, she remembers the verdict.

“When the jury foreman read the verdict of not guilty I got goosebumps all over my body and thought, ‘I want to go to law school. This is what I want to do with my life,’” she said.

While Judge Jones moved to Bristol when she was 11, she was born in Lima, Ohio, where she said she had a “very Midwestern, wholesome upbringing.”

Her father did play-by-plays for a local radio station before working his way up to sales manager. He then became a “constant entrepreneur,” Judge Jones said, opening up a movie theater and becoming involved in drag racing, buying interest in several tracks.

“At one point he was operating four drag strips, so I grew up around cars and racers,” Judge Jones said. “I had a spark plug collection as a little girl and thought that drag racers were the coolest people in the world.”

The family moved to Bristol when her dad was invited to come down and run the Thunder Valley dragway.

“It was a lot of fun,” Judge Jones said. “I learned how to drive a stick shift on the Bristol Motor Speedway. I had my first driving lesson in a pace car.”

Judge Jones attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville for college, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in communications and became involved with the first of what would be many nonprofits she would associate with, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Knoxville.

She went on to attend law school at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, where she thrived and especially enjoyed tough classes, like Constitutional Law with Professor Barbara Kritchevsky and Civil Procedure with Professor June Entman.

After law school, Judge Jones took stock and decided to take some time off.

“I thought I just needed to do something completely different and not stress myself out so much because I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” she said.

“Something completely different” turned out to be selling advertising at a television station in Chattanooga. She water skied every weekend, and studied casually for the bar exam in the evenings.

Judge Jones discovered that she was good at the job, winning sales person of the month several times. When she took and passed the bar exam, it came as a surprise to her co-workers.

“Everyone was looking at me and said, ‘You took the bar exam?’” she recalls humorously.

The year was 1992, and Judge Jones got a job offer to work for an attorney in Nashville. She stayed there for two years before deciding to branch off and start her own practice. She also received an invitation to become an associate with Bruce Weathers Corley & Lyle.

Nancy Corley and Mary Francis Lyle became mentors to her in the early days of her career, helping her find her way in the legal world and sharing stories of how far women had progressed since the early days of their careers.

“They really educated me about how difficult it was when they first started practicing,” she said. “For example, they said child care didn’t even exist when they were in law school. I quickly learned how they had opened doors for us.”

Judge Jones soon found her niche focusing on bankruptcy law and built a solid practice over the next 11 years. She sold it in 2005 when she decided to run for the general sessions bench.

That foray was unsuccessful so Judge Jones started building her second practice, The Jones Law Group, in 2006.

“I felt very fortunate and worked with some great women,” she said.

There were five women in all at the practice, with 13 kids between them, including Jones’ own daughter, now 17.

“I knew a lot of people and was very good at getting cases, and I was able to farm cases out to people based on their experience, but also let them build their hours around their children,” she said. “It worked out really nicely. They were all really happy. They loved what they were doing and they had flexibility for their families.”

Judge Jones loved her work as an attorney. Many of her clients were not wealthy, and she loved “feeling like you got the small guy some justice.” She also valued the relationships that formed between her and her clients.

“My clients often felt like family,” she said. “I just loved the reward of working with them and using my education to make a positive difference in their lives.”

She developed a special passion for helping clients dealing with mental illness, a passion that had grown out of a friendship formed when she worked at the television station in Chattanooga. There she had a friend who was deeply involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He opened up her eyes to the variety of mental illness in society and the struggles and stigma that people with mental illness face.

Judge Jones went on to serve on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Cooperative Foundation from 2009 to 2011. In 2011, she was also named Advocate of the Year by the Nashville Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

As much as she enjoyed her work as an attorney, Judge Jones still had a desire to join the judiciary. She thought the role afforded a unique opportunity to make a difference.

“It seemed like judges were in a position where they could make good decisions that could change people’s lives,” she said.

Judge Jones decided to run for a seat on the Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County General Sessions Court again in 2014. This time she won.

The transition from attorney to judge was “not easy,” she said.

“You have to go from being a complete warrior to being completely neutral,” she explained.” And you always have to look at both sides. It takes a while to get used to it.”

It also took some time for Judge Jones to understand that different people who appear in court respond better to different approaches.

“Sometimes people just need to be loved on, and they need a lot of kindness because they have never been shown kindness,” she said. “You develop an instinct when people come before you and you just start developing, you change. The judge I was the first year on the bench is different than the one I am today.”

That personal evolution has corresponded with more widespread changes throughout the court system, in Judge Jones’ view.

“I think the courts have evolved from being punitive courts to problem solving courts,” she said. “I think that’s what society as a whole wants. They realize people are human; they make mistakes; they come from different backgrounds. Now there is more of a focus on looking at what brought this person here, and what can be done so they won’t come back again.”

Judge Jones delights in hearing from those whose lives she has helped change in one way or another.

“I love the thank you notes I get from defendants later in their lives,” she said. “I’ve had people come to see me and say thank you for putting me in jail. I had a problem, and I didn’t realize it until then.”

She said her work is aided immensely by her colleagues in the criminal justice system.

“There are so many goodhearted people in the criminal justice system, and I think the general public can lose sight of that sometimes,” she said. “I work around some amazing, amazing souls. We have some district attorneys who have hearts of gold. The attorneys working on the homeless court project are thoughtful human beings. The homeless services providers we work with are all trying to make the world a better place.”

The Homeless Court is Judge Jones’ most recent initiative to turn people’s lives around. She was chosen to spearhead the local iteration of this court by Baker Donelson, the law firm that had previously set up a homeless court in New Orleans. The court is intended to stop the revolving door system that sees homeless people repeatedly arrested and incarcerated for minor offenses like public intoxication or trespassing. Court participants will have the opportunity to get those charges wiped from their records if they engage with local service providers.

“I think it shows the power of collaboration in combining city resources, private resources, public resources in making our entire city a better place to live and to lift people up who are often forgotten,” Judge Jones said.

While Judge Jones presides over the court, she is proud that three of her colleagues on the General Sessions bench are also assisting with the program: Judge Melissa Blackburn, Judge Sam Coleman, and Judge Bill Higgins.

Their goodwill and dedication is indicative of the qualities that can be found in the TGSJC as a whole, in Judge Jones’ view.

“There are just some really good people that I admire deeply in the conference,” she said.

Judge Jones became involved in the TGSJC as soon as she became a judge. Since then she has been active on various committees, including the education committee. She thinks the conference provides an invaluable way for judges to learn from one another and to encourage each other.

“I’m constantly striving to become a better judge,” she said. “I want to improve and become the best I can possibly be so I surround myself with other judges so I can learn from them. I have some great examples out there to follow.”

Of course the fact that Judge Jones is taking over as president in the midst of a pandemic is not lost on her, and she is eager to share the knowledge she has gained in Nashville with judges from other parts of the state, where COVID-19 is now spreading more rapidly. She is hopeful that in February she will be able to share that knowledge at an in-person rather than a virtual conference.

She said that one of the values she wants to emphasize during her presidency over the next year is an appreciation of diversity. Judge Jones said that she is thinking of trying to schedule some implicit bias training to emphasize that.

“I have very open-minded colleagues so if we offer them some diversity or implicit bias training, I think they’ll all be open to it,” she said. “I think we all can use reminders myself included. We have very good men and women on our benches.”

In addition to her work on the bench and for the TGSJC, Judge Jones is also a devoted mom to her 17-year-old daughter. She was a Girl Scout troop leader for several years and now is an enthusiastic supporter of her daughter’s athletic activities. Judge Jones’ beloved husband, Matthew Kenigson, passed away last year.

While being a judge is a position never free of challenges, especially during unprecedented times, Judge Jones is facing forward to the future, optimistic about what lies ahead.

“My middle name is obviously tenacity,” she said. “I’m just one of those people that never gives up and keeps on going. Things might knock me down but I get up and keep moving forward. It’s all good.”