By Ashley Benkarski
NASHVILLE, TN — Judge Jennifer Smith is vying to keep her position as 20th District Criminal Court Divison IV Judge, an appointment she received in 2018 from then-Governor Bill Haslam.
Smith will face off against challenger Tillman Payne, who joined the race in December. “I can say I would put my qualifications and experience against anyone,” she said, noting that the rigorous application process she went through is testament to her ability as it covers her background and qualifications, and that application is available to Davidson County residents online. Because Payne didn’t go through that process, she said, constituents will know more about her ability to preside over the court than they will of her opponent’s.
She’s an Afghanistan War veteran and Navy reservist who brings 25 years of experience in criminal justice to the position from the trial court level to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she’s argued three cases. “I’m passionate about criminal justice, and so when I applied for this job in the summer of 2018 it was because I thought that I had reached a point in my career where I was ready to take that next step, and to take that experience and put it to work in the lives of individuals.”
For Smith, it’s not enough to look at just the crime– she understands the role of social issues like poverty and adverse childhood experiences that drive crimes, especially those that are nonviolent in nature. Nearly half of the cases that end up in her courtroom are based on nonviolent property and drug crimes, she said. “You see these property crimes and often those crimes being from social ills. And that’s why I think criminal court can really function as a problem-solving court to address those problems,” she said of programs such as DC4, a separate court that’s part of the criminal court and provides rehabilitative services for offenders with substance abuse problems. DC4 began nearly 20 years ago and operates as an inpatient treatment facility where individuals spend about 18 months in residence. Smith follows up with residents at the facility and in her courtroom.
“I love this job and I feel like I’m the best qualified candidate for the position. I’ve proven how I’m going to approach the job every single day when I go into criminal court and every week when I go out to the Davidson County Drug Court,” she said. She wants voters to research her background and get to know her. “That’s why I went through the selection process, that’s why I applied for the job when it came open. I have been honored to serve as the criminal court judge for Division IV. I certainly would appreciate the support.”
Smith will preside at Nashville’s Drug Court graduation ceremony Jan. 30, where Sen. Brenda Gilmore is slated to make remarks. Graduation will take place at 5:30 p.m. at 1406 County Hospital Road in Nashville with a reception to follow.
Early voting starts Feb. 12 with the general election taking place March 3.