Any story about attorney Michael Dumitru becoming a judge begins with his family, he says, because he would not have won the election without it.
Dumitru begins his account two years ago at the dinner table, where he and his wife, Jessica, were connecting with their children, Noah and Lorelei, at the end of an otherwise unmemorable day.
The evening before, Dumitru and his wife had decided he’d run in the 2022 election for circuit court judge in Hamilton County, but they still wanted to ask their children for their opinions.
“Since Jess and I had already made our decision, this was more of a ministerial exercise than a substantive one,” Dumitru explains.
Jess introduced the topic to Noah and Lorelei, saying, “Daddy is thinking about trying to become a judge. What do you think?”
Lorelei, who was 5, replied before her mother drew her next breath. “Yeah, you should do it,” she fired off before shoveling a forkful of mac and cheese into her mouth.
Meanwhile, Noah, who was 7, had stopped eating and appeared to be contemplating the question.
“Our kids have very different personalities despite being raised in the same house by the same parents,” Dumitru laughs. “My daughter is a pistol, but my son is more deliberative, so as he sat there, I started to wonder, ‘What in the world is this child going to say?’”
After a few moments, Noah sealed his father’s fate when he looked him dead in the eyes and said, “You should do it, dad.”
“Why, buddy?” Dumitru queried.
“Because you’re kind and fair.”
Later that night, Michael told his wife he was now obligated to run. “We feel like all we do is tell our kids no. ‘Dad, can I have this?’ ‘No.’ ‘Mom, can I do that?’ ‘No.’ And for them to still draw those things from our relationship was very meaningful.”
The campaign trail
Dumitru had never considered becoming a judge when he heard the Hon. Jeff Hollingsworth would retire as a circuit court judge at the end of his current term. But the notion of serving his community from the bench intrigued him.
“Jess and I had a long conversation that night, and she said I’d be great at it,” Dumitru recalls.
After securing his wife’s approval, Dumitru spoke with several lawyers, as well as close friends outside the bar. The consensus was positive, with many of his colleagues noting that his uncanny ability as a litigator to draw warring parties to the middle of a dispute would serve him well.
“I’ve always felt like I’m not myopic enough. At least that’s what some of my clients have said,” Dumitru jokes. “Some people want their attorney to put on blinders and do whatever they want them to do, but that’s never been me.
“My job isn’t to make a bunch of money. My job is to say, ‘This is the battlefield, here are the landmines and traveling east is going to put you on top of that one.’ I’ve always taken an objective approach to everything that comes through the door.”
Speaking of doors, Dumitru says, the thought of knocking on them initially unnerved him.
“Door knocking is the most intrusive you can be. And I’m not an extrovert. I can’t go out there and start talking with people. I need to process and think first.”
Although Dumitru had tallied eight years of practice at Miller & Martin in Chattanooga when he tossed his hat into the ring, his personal and professional sphere in Hamilton County were limited, he says. But when his lack of a political following threatened to diminish his prospects for victory in the Republican primary election, he stepped out with his wife, son and “pistol” at his hip.
Although Dumitru is never at a loss for words once he begins speaking, he describes campaigning with a single adjective: exhausting.
Since Dumitru was still a practicing attorney while canvassing for votes, he spent his days working on cases, although Miller & Martin reduced his workload considerably, he says. Days often began with breakfast somewhere in the county, and he and his family spent evenings and weekends going door to door.
Rarely pausing to catch his breath, Dumitru says he put 27,000 miles on his car in the months leading up to the primary May 3.
“Hamilton County is big, big, big,” he exhales. (According to Wikipedia, it’s 576 square miles in size.) “And we knocked on about 2,000 doors.”
As terrifying as door knocking was at first, Dumitru says it wound up being the most fun he and his family had during the campaign. More meaningfully, he adds, it changed the way he viewed the race. Instead of seeing himself as a candidate who was stumping for votes, he found himself cast in the role of educator.
“Someone came to about 95% of the doors we knocked on. Sometimes, they took the information we offered or heard us out. Other times, they engaged us in conversation.”
Many of the folks with whom Dumitru spoke wanted to learn about the court and – comically – whether or not they might end up there if the local prosecutor charged them with a crime. (He claims he did not make a list of the people who asked this.)
“They’d ask, ‘What kind of court is it? If I get a DUI, will I end up there?’ I’d tell them no and then explain what makes circuit court different from the other courts.”
The only child of a Greek father and an Armenian mother who emigrated from communist Romania to New York City in the late 1970s, Dumitru has a large extended family. He recalled how large as his parents and a small army of aunts, uncles, cousins and in-laws descended on Chattanooga for Election Day.
Dumitru also felt a surge of gratitude. “I could not have done this without my wife. She was my rock,” he remembers. “And I could not have done this without my children who, despite being seven and nine, sacrificed more than they probably realized.”
(As a side note, Dumitru notes that his “rock” has since informed him that his jurisdiction ends at their front door.)
Dumitru was holding his daughter the evening of the election when she overheard someone say the word “won.” Her piercing but joyous scream was his first indication that his campaign had been successful.
“You get a handful of moments in life you’ll never forget,” he says. “Lorelei looking at me and screaming, ‘We won’ was one of mine.”
Baby judge school
Dumitru netted 22,717 votes – or 0.84 votes per mile on the campaign trail – and defeated his primary opponent by a margin of 8,748, according to the Hamilton County Election Commission.
As Dumitru would run uncontested in the general election in August, his quest to become a judge had reached an important milestone. But was far from over, he says.
“I don’t think I could’ve minded my own business for three months and then shown up at the courthouse to be a judge. I have to prepare myself as much as I can because of the gravity of the role.”
Following a brief vacation with his wife and kids, Dumitru began to spend a great number of hours in the back corners of local courtrooms during proceedings and then speaking with the judges afterward. As he picked their brains, he asked about their frame of mind, how they approached their ruling and whether or not the personalities of the attorneys impacted the outcome.
“As a lawyer, I have an idea of what a judge does, but I really don’t know because I haven’t been one. So I’ve been doing my homework.”
Dumitru also spoke with attorneys who practiced in areas of the law he hadn’t touched as a litigator.
“Different cases are litigated in different ways and there are different kinds of pressures involved. It’s not one-size-fits-all, so I’ve been trying to find all the shoe sizes I haven’t been wearing.”
Dumitru says watching the procession of often self-represented litigants march through circuit court emphasized the human factor involved in a proceeding. Rules of evidence and procedure are important, as are statutes and laws, but what matters more than all the gearwork of the justice system are the people it’s designed to serve, he says.
Watching the order of protection hearings was especially eye-opening, he adds.
“Judging these cases is simply a matter of listening to someone tell their story. I believe a good percentage of the population cares less about the result of their case and more about the court treating them fairly and giving them an opportunity to be heard. It’s cathartic.”
Dumitru says being an attorney has made him a good listener – as has being a husband, he chuckles – but he still feels unprepared for the task ahead of him. His one-on-one talks with local judges have helped to inch him closer.
“One judge said multimillion dollar jury trials are few and far between given the cost of litigation these days, so I’ll make my mark in the daily grind, in dealing with the small, everyday things that won’t be printed in a newspaper. I can change lives by being accessible to litigants and counsel.”
Although Dumitru declines to reveal which local judge said this, he says it’s helped to give him peace as his induction on Sept. 1 draws near. It has not, however, given him permission to ease up on the gas.
“Each day, I ask myself if I’ve done enough to prepare for what’s coming, and the answer is always no. So I do a little more.”
“A little more” is reductive considering how much Dumitru has on his plate. In fact, he says August has been the busiest month of his life.
The day after the general election ended, Dumitru reported for jury duty, which set him back as he began to wind down his practice at Miller & Martin, but he doesn’t complain.
After performing his civic duty, Dumitru dove into a stack of 800 bar exams he’s responsible for grading and began preparing for a five-day bench trial that will begin at the end of the month. This will come on the heels of what he calls “baby judge school,” a four-day judicial boot camp in Murfreesboro.
“I’ll be listening to every word with bated breath,” he says. “Judges will be telling us how we’re about to step into a different role and explaining how it’s done. Four days is still probably not enough time.”
The final leg
Even as Dumitru plows through the thicket of work, he’s contemplating what he’s going to miss about being an attorney. Collaborating with other lawyers is high on the list, he says.
“Being a judge is by necessity isolating. I’ll be able to bend the ear of the other circuit court judges, but they’ll be busy with their own dockets. When you work at a law firm, you can knock on someone’s door and ask for five minutes of their time to discuss a legal issue that’s new to you. I enjoy that.”
Dumitru says he’ll also miss being persuasive.
“Thinking my way out of tricky situations is fun, but I won’t need to do that as a judge. Instead of convincing someone I’m right and they’re wrong, I’ll be listening and learning.”
Another task Dumitru must complete before Sept. 1 is the acquisition of his robe. Since there’s no shop where a judge can purchase a judicial gown, he says he might search for something appropriate online. (A search for “judge’s robe” on Amazon’s website yields a few options along with dozens of graduation gowns, choir robes and Halloween costumes.)
Since Dumitru’s family has supported him since his announcement at the dinner table in 2020, picturing them offering feedback as he tries on robes in a shop is easy. (One can imagine Lorelei firing off, “I’m not loving that robe on you, daddy” before shoving an apple slice into her mouth.) But buying a gown online will work, too, as Dumitru said “yes to the robe” two years ago.
“If you had asked me five years ago if I’d ever do this, I would’ve said no. But it’s an opportunity to impact the community in a real way and on a larger scale than I have in the last 10 years.
“I’m an outsider. I wasn’t born here, nor was I raised here. But this county has adopted me, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t try to give back.”