Criminal Court Judge E. Shayne Sexton is leaving the bench, after more than two decades of service to Campbell, Claiborne, Fentress, Scott and Union Counties.
“The pandemic changed the way I viewed the role,” said Judge Sexton. “My wife retired from her job. I have two grandchildren now. We became accustomed to staying home. It was a great change. I felt like I worked hard for a long time and then came to a point where I thought it was better for me to retire.”
Judge Sexton was elected to the bench in 1998, an opportunity that came at just the right time.
“My predecessor announced the year before the election he wasn’t going to run, so the seat became open,” said Judge Sexton. “I felt like 1998 was going to be the year I did something else. I was an Assistant District Attorney prior to that and I felt like my time to make a move had come.”
Making a Difference
As he looks back over his career, Judge Sexton feels good about the help he was able to provide to people in his counties.
“We made a difference,” said Judge Sexton. “We started a recovery court in 2005 that allowed me to help people and not just incarcerate or correct. We were able to properly address the problem of addiction and impairment. I had many good partners in this venture. Most importantly, at 35, I was still a young man and was able to grow into what justice truly is. This growth changed the way I view the world today. I am not the same person I was before becoming a judge.”
Cases to Remember
Judge Sexton recalls many serious cases and a death penalty case during his first two years on the bench, but there was one case that impacted him greatly. Not only did it involve difficult subject matter, it prompted a change in the law.
There is now a law in the books called the ‘Baby Haley Law’ that started out in the court I preside over.” said Judge Sexton. “It was a law-changing case involving very serious injuries to a young child. The legislature felt that the law didn’t properly address this situation and changed the punishment provisions because of it. It was a hard-fought trial with many horrific facts, and it’s hard to forget that one. The opioid epidemic also had a profound effect on the way we handle court. It’s not just me, but across the state, we had to go from corrections to problem solving. This has been more of trend than a case. It made us get on our toes and deal with the realities brought by these problems.
Leaving Cases in the Courtroom
“It’s not pleasant to put people in jail or prison day in and out,” said Judge Sexton. “I certainly learned not to enjoy that. It’s tragic when someone has to go to jail because it’s not just that person affected. It involves family members. Such a move has an impact on all persons connected to the case. A judge needs to identify the true problem and attempt to solve it. Incarceration can’t always be the solution. It requires critical thinking skills, and learning them requires hard work and practice.
Whether thinking about how to resolve a case or trying to ease the mind after a case is over, judging can take a health toll. The way those duties are processed is unique to every judge. “We don’t talk about it at home and I’m not sure that’s necessarily good,” said Judge Sexton. “Before the pandemic, I had several hobbies. I used to ride a motorcycle and I would play golf. I also have a good group of friends. Isolation limited those activities. l admit I have forgotten how to recreate. I will work on that.”
Judge Sexton cites the Covid-19 pandemic for negatively impacting the functions of justice.
“Without question, the pandemic had an adverse effect on a judge’s ability to process court because the cases kept piling up,” said Judge Sexton. “They were not going away and we were not able to do much about it. We’ve had, of course, a lot of Zoom court, a lot of remote court and we took care of what we could. But when we can’t try a case by jury, much of the ability to resolve cases goes away. That was a challenge.”
Advice from his Successor
Another factor in deciding to retire in 2022 is the amount of effort it takes to preside over all criminal cases in five counties.
“Geographically, it’s a very large area,” said Judge Sexton. “I did not feel like I had enough left in me for the task. Whatever’s left in me I want to be doing something else.”
He recommends his successor have a lot of energy, along with a solid work ethic.
“Be prepared to work diligently because there are many cases waiting for resolution and new work coming in all the time,” said Judge Sexton. “In a five-county area, it is a moving target. Be prepared for what’s coming and the work required to address It. That’s what I would advise my successor.”
Vacancy Period & Retirement
Although his official retirement date was June 30, Judge Sexton will continue his judicial duties through the end of August.
“I’ve been designated by the Supreme Court to hear some cases and oversee the criminal docket through the vacancy period,” said Judge Sexton. “My successor will take over on the first of September.
As he prepares to settle into retirement, Judge Sexton has a special message for his colleagues.
“It has been a pleasure working with the Administrative Office of the Courts and my colleagues,” said Judge Sexton. “I’ve learned a lot. I will miss them, but I will be around. I’ll be at the conferences and stay in touch. Many of our families travel and dine together, and I want to maintain those powerful relationships.”
Past Employment, Education & Membership
Prior to joining the bench, Judge Sexton spent nine years as Assistant District Attorney General, 8th Judicial District, and one year in private practice. He received his undergraduate and Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Judge Sexton is a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, a Trustee for LaFollette Medical Foundation, and a State of Tennessee Drug Court Advisory Board Member.