Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 23, 2021

Hollingsworth ready to ‘move on’ from Circuit Court

Has hard-earned advice for potential candidates

Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth will not run for re-election in 2022. Instead, he plans to open a mediation practice with his daughter, Katy Hollingsworth. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

When Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth decided to make a bid for the bench in 2006, he paid a visit to the Hon. Sam Payne to confirm the rumors he was hearing about the judge choosing to step down. Looking back, Hollingsworth says he didn’t want to declare his intent to run in the next election until after Payne had announced his retirement.

Hollingsworth, 70, remembered this as he arrived at his decision to not run for reelection in 2022. Although members of the local bar were aware of his verdict, he felt it was prudent to announce it publicly to allow the hopefuls to openly begin laying the groundwork for their campaigns.

Much like Payne welcomed Hollingsworth into his chambers in the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue in 2006, the judge made himself available to his aspiring replacements after making his statement.

“I told them, ‘After an hour with me, you might decide you don’t want to do this,’” Hollingsworth laughs.

As the judge met with the future candidates in the same office in which he and Payne had spoken, he provided insight into the election process and advised them to prepare for a busy year.

Hollingsworth also offered the same warning a friend in the judiciary, the Hon. William “Chink” Brown, had given him about the inevitable frustrations that come with the job.

“The hardest days are usually the ones involving families and kids,” he says. “Chink said there would be plenty of days when I wouldn’t have a good answer and I would have to pick my least bad answer and go with it. That can be frustrating, but you have to do the best you can with what’s in front of you and move on.”

Hollingsworth says if he had decided against running after learning of this caveat, then he would have missed out on “the better days.”

“I enjoy the big jury trials – when there’s a lot going on and good lawyers are wrestling over meaty issues,” he remembers. “That’s fun. You have ideas about what might happen but you’re never quite sure.”

As Hollingsworth strolls down memory lane, he pauses at the recall election of former Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield in 2012. He remembers the courtroom being packed with observers and local media outlets lining the back of his courtroom with cameras.

“It was a big deal,” he says. “We had several hearings about whether the person who was trying to effect the recall had obtained enough signatures and whether or not the signatures were valid. We finally decided they had not obtained enough legitimate signatures for it to be placed on the ballot.”

The story of the Littlefield trial provides Hollingsworth with an opportunity to discuss one of the challenges Chink didn’t mention: Judges can’t know everything.

After Hollingsworth rendered his decision, the case went to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which ruled he had “jumped the gun” because something else had not yet happened.

“I remember looking at the lawyers and thinking, ‘I wish one of you had told me about that,’” Hollingsworth recalls. “It was out there, but I had missed it.”

In the years that followed, Hollingsworth would remember judges sometimes have to rely on the attorneys in a trial to provide the information they need.

“We still have to read the law, hear the evidence and decide whether or not they match up, but in complicated cases with unique issues, we rely on the attorneys to brief us properly.”

Hollingsworth says he appreciates when a lawyer does his or her job well, as it usually makes his job easier. There have been trials, though, when a pair of battle-ready attorneys has made his job difficult.

“When everyone is making sense, it’s harder for me to make a decision,” Hollingsworth chuckles.

As the judge looks back, he sees not only the big cases that dominated local headlines but also the unremitting stream of smaller cases that often flooded his court’s docket. He says these cases were smaller only in the sense that less money was involved.

“We get cases over a few hundred dollars. Those are small cases in the sense that the law and the facts are often clear, but they’re not small to the litigants. It might be a landlord who has a mortgage to pay and needs to collect the rent, or it might be a tenant who’s not going to have a place to live.

“I’ve tried to keep in mind that every case that comes in here is a big deal to someone.”

Hollingsworth has been presiding over matters large and small for 15 years, but he says it feels like less time.

“When I start telling old stories, things comes back fresh and it seems like they happened a couple years ago. At my age, I joke that things happened either five or 20 years ago.”

He’s implying he’s mostly enjoyed his work, the judge says. “It hasn’t been drudgery. There have been days when I’ve wondered if running was a good idea, but by and large, it was a good decision.”

Hollingsworth grew up in New Orleans the youngest of six children. He and his wife of 49 years, Mary, met at Tulane University and later moved to Baton Rouge, the home of Louisiana State University and the law school where he earned his JD.

“My wife put me through law school on a teacher’s salary,” Hollingsworth remembers. “You can’t do that anymore. When we left we had nothing, but we owed nothing.”

After clerking for a Louisiana trial judge, Hollingsworth labored in the Baton Rouge district attorney’s office for several years. In 1984, he and Mary moved to the Chattanooga area to be closer to her family. They still live in the Signal Mountain home they purchased about a year after they arrived.

Leveraging his experience as an ADA, Hollingsworth worked for District Attorney Gary Gerbitz for four years and then joined the firm of Stophel & Stophel. While there – and while he was with the merged firm of Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel – he spent most of his time traveling across the country representing Astec Industries in product liability cases.

When Payne announced his retirement, Hollingsworth was ready for a change.

“I was always fascinated with what the judges were doing in the cases I tried,” he remembers. “And the shine had worn off the business travel.”

The shine has not worn off the bench, but Hollingsworth is still ready for a change.

“I don’t want to become the old guy who should have quit years ago,” he explains. “Some lawyers might tell you I’ve already reached that point, but as you get older, your energy drains, and I don’t want to commit for another eight years. I feel like the upcoming election is a good breaking point.”

The election gives the judge a year to say goodbye to the things he says he’ll miss after he leaves, including being in the courtroom and the people who are a part of his work sphere.

“I’ve always enjoyed interacting with the lawyers and the litigants. I’ll even miss motion calls on Monday mornings. It might look like chaos, but it’s organized chaos.”

Although Hollingsworth is stepping down, he’s not retiring. Instead, he plans to open a mediation practice with his daughter, Katy Hollingsworth, who’s on the path to becoming a Rule 31 family law mediator.

“I’m going to do the civil stuff and some of the family stuff, and then after a while, I’ll say, ‘It’s all yours, kid.’ I’m looking forward to it.”

Hollingsworth says he won’t be returning to the practice of law, though, as he no longer has the patience or the drive.

“It’s hard work, and I don’t feel like working that hard.”

A lot of hard work lies ahead for his would-be successors, however, as they make their bid for his bench, and he’s ready to let them get to it.

“If you see me campaigning, something happened, and it wasn’t good.”