When the Honorable Judge Suzanne Bailey became a referee for the late Juvenile Court Judge Dixie Smith in 1982, kids were typically throwing rocks and stealing popsicles, she says.
When she retired at the end of April of this year, the cases she heard sometimes involved murder, rape, or burglary, and dealing with young kids who’d become involved in gangs wasn’t uncommon.
Judge Bailey, who saw more children during her 30 years on the bench than any justice could remember, lays the blames for the changes on poor parenting. “Children are coming home to an empty house; their parents are either working or on drugs. We’re failing to prioritize the needs of our children, and have stopped giving them personal attention and raising them with values,” she says.
Judge Bailey didn’t mince words when she was on the bench, either, for she believed her court’s time with a young person might be the only chance she and her staff would have to turn the child away from peers who were steering them wrong and toward adults who were trying to guide them onto the right path.
Some children scorned the help of the court, but Judge Bailey’s efforts were not always in vain. She has many memories of youth who turned their lives around after an encounter with the law, but shares just one story:
“While I was in court, someone told me a young man was there to see me. He’d come in front of me once, and wanted to present himself to me and show me what he’d become. When the door opened, a handsome young man in a Marine uniform stepped in. He’d done well. I didn’t remember him, but he believed our encounter had helped him to make the right choices in life.
“That’s when I realized I was where I was supposed to be. And through the years, no matter now many child abuse cases broke my heart, I always thought back to those kids who made it. They were the blessings that kept me going.”
Judge Bailey needed those blessings to get her through the tough days. Once, a young man the same age as her son came before her. The 14-year-old had been the driver in a wreck in which alcohol had been a factor. Devastatingly, a friend had been killed in the accident.
“I thought, ‘But for the grace of God, I could be sitting on either side of this courtroom, either as the parent of the deceased child or the parent of the child who survived but is going to be crippled for life and have to deal with losing his friend.’ He’d made a mistake, and it cost him dearly,” she says. “I had to take a recess. I walked until I was clear-headed enough to return to the bench and apply the law to the facts as they had been presented to me. Then I went home and grabbed my son.”
Judge Bailey did not labor alone. Behind every strike of her gavel was, at one point, nearly 100 staff. “I was blessed to have worked with many people who cared about children. The jobs didn’t pay much, so those people were there because they were dedicated to our cause,” she says.
Just as vital to the success of the court were the corps of volunteers, Judge Bailey says. “Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to serve the children as well as we did.”
Judge Bailey calls the staff and volunteers of juvenile court “the true heroes of the children.”
“They also went home at night and cried over the things we saw – children who’d died from abuse or suffered life-long injuries. I’m leaving a lot of good people behind. I hope they’ll continue to give of their hearts.”
Judge Bailey grew up in a small Middle Tennessee town when the only profession available to most women there was teaching. While she didn’t want to go to college, her father insisted. She earned an undergraduate degree in history at Vanderbilt with an eye on attending either medical or law school, but learned while working at a medical clinic that her calling was not medicine.
When she started taking law classed at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 1972, she was one of only a dozen women in a class of 160 freshmen. She calls her first quarter “a very trying time.”
“I packed and nearly quit twice. But I made it through my first quarter, and from then on, I enjoyed law school,” says Judge Bailey, who went on to become the first woman elected president of the UT bar association.
She came out of law school in 1975 wanting to practice criminal law. One of her first cases involved juveniles. The experience touched a chord in her, and she asked to be placed on the appointment list at juvenile court.
“I enjoyed taking appointments there. We didn’t get paid for misdemeanors of guardiam ad litem work, but my heart attached to juvenile court and the children who came through there,” she says.
The young Bailey had certainly found her calling. In time, she became the first woman elected to any judgeship in Hamilton County.
Her advice for her replacement, Judge Rob Philyaw, is simple: “Have the heart of a servant.”
“I’m happy to see someone take over who might come up with new ways of reaching these kids – ways I never would have thought of,” she says.
As Judge Bailey faces retirement, she’s looking forward to spending time with family and possibly volunteering at hospice. But she says she’ll miss the bench. “You can’t leave something like that after 30 years and not feel a void.”