Juvenile Court Magistrate Cynthia LeCroy-Schemel says she knows she has big shoes to fill as the successor to Magistrate Bruce Owens, who will retire at the end of June after 29 years on the bench. So, she’s not correcting any of the staff at juvenile court who still call her “Miss Schemel.”
Schemel says she believes the informal appellation is rooted in her nearly three-year stretch as the supervisor of the custody and visitation department of juvenile court, which ended only a few years ago.
She also speculates the origin of “Miss Schemel” could go even further back, since she’s known some of the juvenile court staff since the 1990s when she served as guardian ad litem for the court.
Regardless, Schemel isn’t correcting anyone – yet.
“I’m a laid-back person. But let’s talk again in a year.”
Schemel brings nearly 30 years of experience as a legal practitioner to her new role.
She began her career in Memphis as a private practice attorney. After moving to Chattanooga, she took a job with the public defender’s office, where she spent five years representing the accused in Hamilton County.
A decade of private practice followed, with Schemel building a practice based on appointed criminal cases, including 10 death penalty cases.
This was demanding work, Schemel recalls. “You must do everything within ethical bounds to save that person’s life, which means securing any kind of lesser sentence,” she says. “Since your job is to protect the defendant’s constitutional rights and be a zealous advocate, it was difficult to classify cases as a win or loss.”
Schemel relieved herself of the heavy weight of death penalty cases when she switched to the other side of the courtroom to serve as an assistant district attorney in Bradley County. Her stint as a prosecutor lasted nine years and ended when she became the supervisor of the custody and visitation department of juvenile court in Hamilton County.
“I had been doing very stressful work for a long time, and I thought it would be a welcome change,” she says. “Plus, I live in Signal Mountain, and I was tired of the long commute.”
Schemel says her varied experience was a factor in both of the job changes that followed. In 2018, several attorneys encouraged her to apply for a position as an attorney with the Department of Children’s Services. She did and was hired.
She continued in this work until Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw selected her to fill the seat Owens had decided to vacate.
Philyaw says Schemel “did a fantastic job” as supervisor of custody and visitation and believed her experience would serve her well as she worked with litigants in custody, visitation and neglect cases.
“Magistrate Schemel’s diverse background as a defense attorney, prosecutor and child advocate attorney will provide a great foundation for types of cases she’ll hear and decide,” Philyaw explains.
“But maybe more important than her legal experience is her thoughtful and calm approach to both complex legal issues and in the many interactions she has with litigants, service providers and children.”
Schemel says she’s simply honored to serve. “I appreciate Judge Philyaw having confidence in me and giving me this opportunity.”
Schemel didn’t envision herself becoming a magistrate as she grew up in Northeast Georgia. The thought never entered her mind as she studied accounting at the University of Georgia, either.
But it became a possibility when she realized she had no interest in numbers and decided to become an attorney instead.
“I liked political science, and I had interned for my congressman and senator, so I became more and more interested in the law,” she explains.
She and her husband, attorney Ed Schemel, lingered in Memphis for one year after she graduated from law school, but the heat and uniformly flush landscape drove them toward the less intense climate and the mountains of Southeast Tennessee, where Ed Schemel had secured work in Chattanooga.
Thirty years later, Schemel is taking her first confident steps as a juvenile court magistrate. While she’s only handling detention hearings and filling in for the other magistrates as necessary, she’ll assume Owen’s position full-time at the end of June.
Philyaw says he expects Schemel to once again do “a fantastic job.”
“I wish Magistrate Owens had a crystal ball he could leave on the bench to help her make the best decisions for children and families. Nevertheless, I have complete confidence in Magistrate Schemel’s legal skills and abilities, her heart and her commitment to serving extremely well in this new role.”
Schemel smiles and says she might start with insisting the staff at juvenile court begin calling her “Magistrate Schemel.”
“It’s a courtroom and I’ll be a magistrate, so I need to earn and command respect. But more than that, I want to do what’s right. I want to follow the law and help the people of Hamilton County.”