By Tony Jones
MEMPHIS, TN — The 97th Annual Convention of the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association kicked off Sunday, July 24 in Memphis, bringing together 1,100 Black attorneys right ahead of an election dominated by law-and-order issues.
Totaling 136 races and 344 candidates, the hottest contest is the District Attorney’s race between incumbent Republican Amy Weirich and Democrat challenger Steve Mulroy. Among the 37 choices for judicial seats is the Juvenile Court Judge rematch between sitting Judge Dan Michaels and Judge Tarik Sugarmon.
Also on the ballot are Shelby County Sheriff and County Mayor, as well as a referendum seeking voters’ approval of a third four-year term for municipal offices.
Attorney Van Turner’s civic imprint intersects it all— As an outgoing County Commissioner, NAACP Chapter President, presumptive future mayoral candidate and partner at Bruce Turner, PLLC, he said the attendees he’s conversed with mostly comment that Memphis, like the rest of the nation, is due for reform: “It’s a law-and-order ballot and they’ve zoomed right in on the issues.”
To that end, Turner said he feels the Ben F. Jones Chapter is doing good work. “They’ve gone full in on the restoration of citizenship rights. As ex-offenders they have full value … The chapter’s pro-bono legal services are exceptionally valuable for those that can’t afford legal services, [as well as] the mentoring programs that encourage youth.”
Commenting on further needed reforms, Turner said, “Look at the marijuana issue. You have folks selling it outright now, so [sentences of] those nonviolent offenders that have multiple felony convictions for selling marijuana need to be cut. It needs to be case by case.”
In an interview on Channel 3’s Live At 9, chapter President Carlos Moore skewered Wierich for deciding to prosecute the murderer of Rev. Autura Eason-Williams. Her assailant is a 15-year-old juvenile court detainee with several crimes on record and was wearing a 24-hour monitoring device when he committed the crime. Weirich issued a press release announcing they intend to try him as an adult. A second 15-year-old has now also been charged.
In a social media post, the victim’s daughter, Ayanna Hamilton, wrote, “My mommy was a tireless advocate and strategist for restorative justice practices. Please do not use her death as an opportunity to go all tough on crime, throw them under the jail, charge them as adults so they won’t get a chance to do this again on us.”
On the other hand, Debra Marion, the mother of slain former Memphis Grizzlies star and hometown hero Lorenzen Wright, has been featured on radio commercials advocating for Weirich’s support of 100 percent jail time for violent felons. This serves as a reminder to potential voters that Weirich attended the hearing denying Lorenzen’s ex-wife, Sherra Wright, probation for her part in his murder.
Another hot-button issue concerns a referendum on term limits. Set to exit his Shelby County Commission post Sept. 1, Turner opposes the referendum which seeks to prolong the terms of City Council and Mayor. “Even though I think they were put in place to limit service of African American leadership in this community, I’m wholly against it. This is what the people wanted, what they voted for,” he commented.
Enthused that the convention is in Memphis, Attorney Vanecia Belser Kimbrow said the convention being held in Memphis underlines an important national concern the chapter is focused on. “It’s wonderful to have all the members here. We have many judicial candidates that are members of the National Bar Association, but I think our primary concern is election integrity and the growing divide in the country. We are encouraging people to become get out and early vote. This election only happens every eight years and it impacts so many of our youth and adults, and now we have a chance to impact the D.A.’s ballot. And not just the top races. We’re asking people to please vote on the entire ballot. Unfortunately, historically a lot of people will just vote the top two races and then just stop. We’re asking people to please vote on the entire ballot.”
The judicial concentration reflects a larger issue the local races affect. “There have been so many attempts to roll back our rights claiming that the (2016) election was stolen. We are informing people that there is integrity in the voting process. There has been no evidence of any election being stolen; it’s just rhetoric invented to divide us,” Kimbrow said.