Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, August 20, 2021

Atchley plays right age card in securing judicial post


When Charles Atchley, Jr., arrived at the office of Lamar Alexander last year to discuss his bid to become a U.S. district judge, the now retired U.S. senator offered good news.

“He said, ‘We’re going to recommend you to the White House,’” Atchley recalls. “I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’”

As Atchley was mentally celebrating, Alexander tempered his announcement with a caveat.

“He said, ‘You’re on the verge of being too old, and the White House is going to ask you about it.’”

Atchley knew Alexander was referring to the time-honored preference of the ruling political party to select men and women who have many years of service on the bench ahead of them.

As a 54-year-old first assistant U.S. attorney, Atchley knew that was strike one. But as the 54-year-old father of a 10-year-old daughter, he also knew he’d connect with his second swing.

“If I can raise a daughter at my age, then I’m in good shape,” Atchley said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Then make sure you remind the White House you have a young daughter,” Alexander advised.

Apart from the gray in his hair, the White House liked Atchley, and tapped him to succeed Judge Harry Mattice, Jr., who took senior status last year.

“I didn’t think I was politically connected enough to get the job, but I had good interviews with the White House and the senators,” Atchley says.

Atchley brings 26 years of intense prosecutorial experience to the bench.

During his tenure as an assistant district attorney in the Fourth Judicial Circuit of Tennessee, he handled cases ranging from child exploitation and fraud to public corruption and civil rights violations.

Memorable cases from this phase of his career include prosecuting a sitting judge for accepting bribes and placing five Campbell County sheriff’s deputies on trial for tying an alleged drug dealer to a chair and beating a confession out of him.

“That’s not how we enforce the law in the United States,” Atchley says. “People sent me hate mail over that one, but it needed to be done.”

Atchley also tried many significant cases as an assistant U.S. attorney and a first assistant U.S. attorney, including the prosecution of a prolific spy from China in 2018. Impressed with his work on the matter, the FBI honored Atchley with its Outstanding Counterintelligence Investigation of the Year award.

Atchley smiles and says none of that matters when he’s presiding over a civil matter in U.S. district court.

“The law is big and complex, and when you assume this role, you’re responsible for all of it, regardless of what you did before.

“I didn’t practice much in the civil area, so that’s been challenging. I can have two good lawyers, each of whom will stake out a position that’s 180 degrees different from the other one, and I have to decide which one is correct, knowing the other side is going to think, ‘Who’s this idiot they sent down from Jefferson County?’ But that’s the nature of the law.”

Atchley says his skin is still tough from his days as a prosecutor, so he takes the presumed barbs of losing attorneys in stride. The most important thing to him, he says, is serving the public to the best of his ability.

“I’ve always been drawn to public service. This sounds hokey, but I love this country. It has its problems, but it’s the greatest country on the planet, and I want to help make it better.”

Atchley’s love of country took him from the tobacco fields of Jefferson County, where he worked as a young man, to the U.S. Marine Corps, where a recruiter convinced him to attend law school and become a military lawyer.

Armed with a history degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Atchley saw the invitation as a door to a career.

“I wanted to join the Navy, but this was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the military was downsizing, so the Navy wouldn’t take me,” Atchley remembers. “But the Marine Corps recruiter said, ‘We need lawyers.’ I wanted to be a career military officer, so I agreed to go to law school.”

Atchley earned his Juris Doctor from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University, which he says stimulated the part of his mind that enjoys logical thinking.

The aspiring attorney also liked being a Marine. Atchley says the discipline was good for him, and he enjoyed the camaraderie and “esprit de corps.”

Then a serious injury dashed his hopes for a career as a military officer. “I fell 20 feet off a night infiltration course and fractured my left arm. The commandant sent me a letter saying, ‘We consider you to be no longer physically qualified for this.’”

Undeterred, Atchley continued along the path on which the Marines had placed him. While in school, he clerked for the district attorney’s office in Birmingham, and was drawn to the criminal side of the law. Later, when a positioned open in the DA’s office in the Fourth Judicial District in 1994, he threw his hat into the ring.

Atchley says the job provided the real-world legal education law school could not.

“I rode the circuit in four counties – Cocke, Jefferson, Sevier and Grainger. I kept my files in my car and went from courthouse to courthouse prosecuting cases. It wasn’t unusual for me to try a case in one county one day and then try a jury trial in another county the next day. It was a different time.”

As Atchley prosecuted everything from first degree murder down, he experienced varying degrees of success and failure. “I don’t care how smart you are as a young lawyer; when you get into those county courts, you’re going to get schooled,” he says with more than a hint of knowing.

Atchley joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2001 as an AUSA. During the ensuing stretch of his career, he also served as deputy chief of the Criminal Division and supervisor of the National Security Unit. In 2017, he graduated to first assistant U.S. attorney.

The opportunity to become a judge came along at the zenith of his maturity as a legal practitioner, Atchley says.

“I felt like I was mature enough and experienced enough to do it. As I told someone at the White House, I would not have been as good at this job at 45 as I’m going to be at 55. And I certainly wouldn’t have been as good at 35 as I will be when I’m 55. What I thought was a five-alarm fire when I was 35 is now a room full of smoke. That comes with experience.”

As Atchley muscled his way through the process to become a judge, memories of his years as a prosecutor emerged from the soil under which time had buried them, and he made an interesting discovery.

Of all his cases of great import, the one that kept returning to his thoughts involved the rape of a child in Jefferson County.

He remembers the 1998 trial with the clarity of a recent event.

“The victim was a girl whose uncle began raping her when she was 8. This went on until she finally told someone about it when she was 12.

“Her mother didn’t want us to prosecute her brother. She felt like it was a family matter that shouldn’t be handled in the courts. I disagreed.

“I’ll never forget when she showed up in court. Her mother had dressed her in a short skirt and a low-cut top in an attempt to sexualize her. When I said something to the mother about this, she said, ‘I’m not going to let that little whore send my brother to prison.’

“It was a tough trial, but the daughter told the truth, and the jury was able to see what the mother was trying to do. By convicting him, they allowed the Department of Children’s Services to pull the girl out of that home.

“I had cases that made a greater impact on society, but to that girl in Jefferson County, nothing was more important than getting out of that house. I sometimes wonder what happened to her after that.”

Atchley was sworn in Dec. 22 as a judge in the Eastern District of Tennessee and began commuting from his seat in Knoxville and the home he shares with his wife and daughter to Chattanooga, where he spends three days each week.

Since Atchley will be in town when the Chattanooga Bar Association celebrates Law Day Wednesday, Sept. 15, at the Read House, the organization asked him to deliver the keynote address.

He readily agreed, saying he cherishes every opportunity to express his patriotism.

Although Atchley has not yet formalized his remarks, he hopes to speak about the importance of learning civics.

“When I grew up, schools taught about our government and how it works, but that’s going away. There are YouTube videos of college students who don’t know when the Civil War took place or how our government operates, and that’s dangerous.

“When people don’t understand history, they create their own version of it and their own view of government and how it works that has nothing to do with the truth.”

At 54, Atchley says that’s still a five-alarm fire.