Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 11, 2021

Owens reflects amid early retirement

Hamilton County Juvenile Court Magistrate Bruce Owens will retire June 30 after 29 years on the bench. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Some people circle the day of their retirement on their calendar long before the date is close. But not Hamilton County Juvenile Court Magistrate Bruce Owens. Instead of counting the days until he steps off the bench for the last time, he says he feels like he’s cutting his time short.

“I’m leaving a couple years sooner than I want to,” says Owens, 67. “The past year has taken a lot out of me, and I need to rest and improve my health.”

Owens cites long work days during the early months of the pandemic and an extended bout with COVID-19 as the culprits that accelerated his exit from his position, which he’s held for nearly 30 years.

“My last day will be June 30 – the 29th anniversary of my first day on the job,” Owens notes. “I will really miss this when I step down.”

Owens’ fellow judicial officers say they’ll be as sad to see him go as he is to leave.

“Magistrate Owens has been a steady presence at Hamilton County Juvenile Court for almost three decades. Not many here know the court without him,” Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw says.

“We will miss his institutional knowledge of the court, his calm demeanor, his endless stories and his sneaky sense of humor. He’s a fine man who’s had a stellar judicial career.”

Magistrate Kathy Clark also references Owens’ composure in comments about her departing colleague.

“Magistrate Owens maintains a calm and controlled presence on the bench and delivers his decisions with compassion,” she offers. “His ability to analyze and dissect issues is exceptional. He’s also smart, funny and balanced – traits that are often missing in the judiciary.

“His dedication to the court, his oath and the rule of law are to be applauded. It’s been a pleasure to serve the families of Hamilton County with him.”

As Owens looks back on his decades of service on the bench, he sees an ocean of faces searching for the compassion Clark says he provides.

“A woman in her 30s appeared before me last week. She has five kids in foster care. I remembered putting her in foster care when she was 3.

“After I heard her case, I located her file from when she was a child, and the number was 35,000 files ago. I have seen generations.”

Owens says his caseload during those years has consisted of three general categories, including children accused of actions that would be considered criminal if they were an adult, adjudicating and supervising foster care cases and presiding over parenting disputes.

The bench also has exposed Owens to people who shared sad stories of financial difficulties, battles with substance abuse and worse. But as pained as he was each time he learned the details of a case, he says the things that stayed with him after the end of each day were the lasting effects of the trauma the children involved had experienced.

“I recently saw several women in their 30s who first came through my court as victims of abuse,” he laments. “And it’s not uncommon for me to look at mug shots online and see someone I know.

“Knowing those girls felt so much shame that they drifted into drugs and self harm keeps me up at night. They’re still punishing themselves.”

Owens says he found his purpose as a magistrate when he began to encourage the people who appeared before him to live a better life.

“Many people are carrying so much humiliation, they believe they lack the ability to stop taking drugs, or are not worthy of being a parent,” he suggests. “But if you give them a reason to believe in themselves, then some of them will make an effort.”

Owens says he’s even extended judicial mercy to people who have relapsed while recovering from addiction.

“There was a time when I was quick to write off parents who relapsed after treatment, but over time, I realized you can’t be quick to do that because relapse is an element of recovery,” he explains. “I learned a lot about how to encourage people who might benefit from that.”

While Owens became known among his peers for balancing the law with compassion, he says his approach to justice never means he has a soft touch.

“I’m a second chance kind of judge, but if someone receives harsh consequences, they can’t say I didn’t give them an opportunity to avoid them. I might not be long on lectures, but I will make people understand what’s going to happen if they make the same mistake again.”

Owens says he has faced other challenges as a magistrate, from being unable to place a child with a better caregiver than the parent because a party to the case failed to meet the burden of proof to presiding over matters in which it was difficult for him to ascertain where the truth rested.

But for every downbeat tale Owens tells, he also offers a fond memory of his years with juvenile court, whether it was the time a litigant placed a lien on his property because the man didn’t like the decision he reached in a case (prompting the only time Owens was called before the Board of Professional Responsibility), to the time his cellphone rang during a proceeding, abruptly ending his tenure as a judge who frowned on cellphones in the courtroom.

Owens also has a collection of stories about lives he says be might have had a small hand in turning around.

“I had a young lady with a boyfriend who didn’t necessarily mistreat her but definitely caused her to abuse substances and ignore her parents’ efforts to keep her clean,” he remembers.

“In time, I bumped into her at a mall, and she said the things I had said about her boyfriend hit home, and she had gotten rid of him and was with someone who treated her like I told her she deserved to be treated.

“That felt good. It’s gratifying knowing your decisions have lasting impact. Even though there’s the stress of worrying about making a bad decision, if you do this job long enough, you develop a certain level of confidence.”

Long before Philyaw’s predecessor, the Hon. Suzanne Bailey, invited Owens to become a magistrate, a younger Owens faced a decision between psychology and the law.

As the son of the late Chancellor Robert Vann Owens, he defaulted to the law after earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. But his father convinced him he chose hastily and advised him to spend more time thinking about his future.

“Dad was right,” Owens says. “I thought the law was a way to make a good living, and I wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps, but those aren’t reasons to go to law school.”

After unpacking his bags, Owens worked as a “low-paid psychiatric tech” at Moccasin Bend. Two years later, he switched to Valley Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent five years.

While at Valley, Owens decided to pursue a career in hospital administration, although his interest waned after a corporation purchased the hospital and, in his words, “squeezed as much profit out of it as possible.”

Disillusioned – and spurred by an enjoyable stint on a Hamilton County grand jury during the summer of 1982 – Owens repacked his bags and drove to the Memphis State University College of Law (now the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law).

After earning his law degree, Owens returned to Chattanooga and worked for two of the city’s large firms before joining a three-man practice – a move he now sees as unwise.

“I decided I wasn’t cut out for working for a lot of bosses, but it was not a smart move on my part to see what it would be like to be on my own. I eventually realized my reasons for leaving the big firms were naïve.”

Regardless, Owens spent enough time in juvenile court while in private practice to draw the attention of Bailey, who offered him a job as a magistrate. He gratefully accepted, and has never regretted his decision.

“I was fortunate to end up in this job,” he adds. “It’s hard to be a lawyer, and this job better utilizes my skills.

“Many of the litigants here are of limited means and education, and I was raised to be humble and appreciate people from all walks of life. So folks have been more likely to listen to me, and I have been more likely to hear them, than maybe they were expecting.”

Speaking of expectations, Owens has none for his retirement, with the exception of spending more time with his wife, Betty, and their two sons and four grandchildren. In addition, he hopes to serve more at his church, Red Bank United Methodist, as he says he wants to continue to be useful to others.

An avid music collector, Owens is also looking forward to giving his stereo a workout and “banging on the piano.”

He says he would also like to begin keeping the company of jurists.

“I’m looking forward to having more personal relationships with people now that I won’t be on the bench,” he says. “I never allowed myself to become close to attorneys, or to even socialize with them, to avoid a sense of having favorites. Now I’d like to go to lunch and get to know them better.”

This sounds like an invitation. Just don’t expect Owens to circle the date on his calendar.