Seventh Judicial District Circuit Judge Don Elledge will retire at the end of June, after 16 years on the bench serving the people of Anderson County. During that time, Judge Elledge has gained a reputation as a respected leader among his peers, having been elected in 2019 for a term as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, and as a caring jurist willing to try new approaches to help those in need, evident in his establishment of the 7th Judicial District Recovery Court.
Although he never aspired to be a judge, when a vacancy opened up in his home district, Judge Elledge was encouraged to apply by others in his community. He was successful, and Governor Phil Bredesen appointed him to the bench in September 2005. Judge Elledge did not fully know at the time that he was about to embark on the most rewarding journey of his professional life.
“It’s been an honor for me to serve the people of Anderson County,” Judge Elledge said. “They have been tremendously good to me and my family, and I am forever grateful.”
Since his appointment, Judge Elledge has won election to the circuit court bench twice, in 2006 and in 2014. Stepping down now, a year before his term is up in 2022, was not something that he ever intended to do.
“I love doing what I’m doing,” Judge Elledge said. “I’ve always loved being in the courtroom.”
If it were possible, he would continue in court for another year, even at nearly 72 years old. Health issues, however, are forcing him to slow things down a bit and step away from the bench.
Judge Elledge grew up in impoverished circumstances in DeKalb County. In his presidential speech to his fellow judges, he colorfully described the dilapidated shack, including collapsed floors, lack of indoor plumbing and critters inside and in the walls, where he spent the majority of his childhood. Inspired by the example of a successful uncle, Judge Elledge excelled in academics and high school football, which earned him a partial scholarship to Tennessee Tech University.
He graduated from Tennessee Tech in 1971 and then reported for military service. He was commissioned through the ROTC and served as an infantry officer at Fort Benning in Georgia.
Judge Elledge’s legal career began in 1977, when he joined the Tennessee bar after graduating from the Nashville School of Law (then the Nashville YMCA Night Law School). For the first part of law school, Judge Elledge made daily 120-mile roundtrip commutes to Nashville from Smithville, where he worked as a fourth-grade teacher and a high school football coach. For the final years of the program, he moved to Nashville and worked in construction.
When Judge Elledge was appointed to the bench in 2005, he had been in private practice for 28 years, the vast majority of it in Clinton. As a lawyer, he specialized in domestic and criminal work and relished being in the courtroom.
That passion carried over into his judicial career, where jury trials have always been one of his favorite parts of the job. There is nothing else like seeing two well-prepared attorneys make their best cases for their clients, Judge Elledge said. “That’s what the practice of law is all about, and I love it.”
Judge Elledge’s other favorite aspect of being a judge has involved recovery court. He has presided over the 7th Judicial District Recovery Court since he established it in 2007. He was also appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court to preside over the Morgan County Residential Recovery Court, where he supervised the treatment and recovery of over 292 program participants.
Over the years, he has seen countless lives changed for the better with the help of recovery court. It is especially rewarding when graduates update him on their lives and accomplishments. Just recently, several graduates dropped in and told Judge Elledge about the successful businesses they are now running.
“There is nothing that gives judges greater satisfaction than knowing we have helped to positively turn someone’s life around,” Judge Elledge said. “It affects not only participants, but the participants’ families and friends. I enjoy doing jury trials, but I love my Drug Court.”
In retirement, Judge Elledge hopes to travel more with his wife, Kimberly. He also plans to keep attending the state judicial conferences as much as possible, where many of his friends on the bench gather to learn and spend time with each other.
“I’ve made such close friends with so many fellow judges,” Judge Elledge said. “I’ve had so many phone calls since people learned I was retiring. It makes you feel humble, and it makes you feel cared for. That’s the type of people we have in the Tennessee judiciary. Just good people. These are my brothers and sisters. This is my family.”