Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, December 1, 2023

Bringing a bit of humor to ‘hectic, chaotic’ arena

But justice is an obligation Ables says he takes seriously

Judge Larry Ables’ courtroom in General Session Court is lined with the dignified portraits of his predecessors, robed figures whose mastery of the law and aspirations of public service led them to the bench. This gallery of heroes watches over Ables, 53, as he does his part to move more than 50,000 cases through Hamilton County’s General Sessions pipeline each year.

When the clamor of Ables’ morning and afternoon dockets has faded to the soft murmurs of his courtroom staff, he retreats to his chambers, where a different kind of hero casts a vigilant eye on him.

Striking valiant poses along the right wall of his office are a colorful assortment of costumed characters usually found dashing across a movie screen or leaping from the cover of a comic book, including Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man and others.

Instead of admitting to being a Marvel or DC fanboy, Ables attributes the presence of the superheroes in his hallowed chambers to holes in the wall.

“There were a bunch of holes in the wall when I moved in,” he shrugs. “I have one son who has superheroes all over his room and a son who has ‘Star Wars’ all over his room, so when I moved into this office, I thought, ‘I’ll cover them with one or the other.’ My sons had more Marvel and DC stuff than Star Wars, so I wound up with these.”

The bright, brassy posters might serve a practical purpose, but they also suggest Ables has a playful side that strikes a roguish contrast to the no-nonsense portraits in his courtroom.

Ables’ courtroom demeanor occasionally supports this theory. Earlier, during his afternoon citation docket, he jokingly told a man who’d been cited for fishing without a license to avoid getting caught again. He also briefly broke into song between two defendants.

Regardless, Ables insists he’s as no-nonsense as his predecessors.

“If you have an obligation, then I believe you need to take care of it. I tell everyone who has to do public work days that they’ll go to jail if they don’t. And then I ask them, ‘What’s going to happen if you don’t do your days?’ And they say, ‘I’ll go to jail.’ So, when they come back with an excuse for why they haven’t done their days, they go to jail. They have to suffer the consequences of the bad decision they made.”

Ables describes General Sessions Court as “hectic,” “chaotic,” and “the only courtroom in Hamilton County where a defendant will cuss out a judge, or someone will knock over people in an attempt to escape.”

The potential for these and other courtroom shenanigans to occur exists because General Sessions is a court of first entry, Ables explains, as well as a place where an assortment of humanity comes together in a mad crunch to sort out a staggering variety of cases. As such, emotions can boil over.

However, even as the stacks of folded affidavits in front of Ables during a criminal docket loom tall and he mentally divides the number of documents in front of him by the number of hours he has to make a ruling on each one, he remains understanding, patient and – when he can be – lenient, he says.

“When someone curses me out, I don’t lose any sleep over it,” he says. “But I do try to head it off. When I was in trouble as a child, I’d curse my parents as I was walking up the stairs, where they couldn’t hear me. I never would have cursed my parents directly. So, I can see it when someone comes into court and wants to say something they shouldn’t. I say, ‘Wait. When you get on the other side of that door, you can call me every name in the book, but wait until then.’”

After three consecutive weeks of criminal matters, the court grants Ables a week of traffic and mental health dockets. He says it keeps him sane, as the criminal docket tends to be overwhelming and stressful. “It’s a bit of a breather,” he says, his cheeks puffing as he slowly releases a deep breath to demonstrate.

When Ables was inducted in September 2022, he stepped only a few feet from the lectern to the bench, as he was working an assistant district attorney when he participated in the election for General Sessions Court judge. His history with the court also includes a three-year stint as an ADA after he graduated from Florida Coastal School of Law in 2003.

Like a gift that kept giving, General Sessions Court also served as the venue through which Ables met his wife, Kayle.

Ables says he likes to tell people he met Kayle in court. “She was a clerk, not a criminal,” he laughs. “Judge (Ron) Durby and his court clerk were always trying to marry her off – not that she was trying to get married off – and she’s been stuck with me ever since.”

In 2007, Ables became the court’s chief magistrate, a role he occupied for five years. He pursued the post – a nighttime assignment – so he could spend more time with his and Kayle’s two sons. After practicing criminal law on his own for several years, Ables returned to the district attorney’s office during the tenure of General Neal Pinkston.

Ables became an attorney in his thirties and was in his late thirties when he married Kayle and became a father. He credits his late launch to the long stretch (12 years, he says) between graduating from Chattanooga Central High School and completing his political science degree at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Ables wasn’t spinning his wheels, he says, he was living his life. Or rather, he was living the life. Between occasional bouts of academia, Ables first bartended at TGI Fridays at Hamilton Place Mall, and later slung drinks at Ocean Avenue. He also traveled, went to concerts and “had a lot of fun,” he says.

“I wasn’t in a rush to graduate from of college,” Ables grins. “I got sidetracked and did things that probably didn’t benefit mankind, although they benefited me at the time.” His smile isn’t quite as mischievous as the beam on The Joker’s face on a poster to his left, but it’s a close cousin.

That smile once belonged to Ables’ late father, an iron worker who encouraged Ables to earn a college degree and rise above his family’s blue-collar roots. When people suggest Ables’ father would have been proud to see him become a judge, Ables says his father was always proud of him.

“My parents would tell me they were proud of me when I was a bartender. They didn’t believe a person’s value is tied to their occupation. They were happy I was flourishing and having a good time. I never wondered if I was loved or if anyone cared about me.”

Although Ables aspired to become a General Sessions Court judge, he says he was unable to figure out how to secure an appointment. So, when his predecessor, Gerald Webb, was due to run for reelection in 2022, Ables tossed his hat into the ring.

Ables waited until the last day to submit his papers to make sure his family was behind his decision to run.

“Putting your family through that experience is a big deal. It’s more work than people realize. When I decided to run, we sat down as a family and talked about all the things that would be involved – long days, driving from one end of the county to the other, a lot of pancake breakfasts. We made that commitment as a family.”

Ables says he poured every moment away from his day job and every ounce of vigor he had into his campaign. As rigorous as the work was, he enjoyed traveling across the county, knocking on doors and meeting people, he adds.

“I’m a social person,” the former bartender explains. “When Kayle and I married, my world grew smaller and became about her and our children. Running for judge allowed me to tap back into my outgoing personality more so than I had in a number of years.”

Local residents cast just over 41,000 votes in the election; Ables topped Webb by nearly 4,600 votes. While he now sits a little higher in court, he says little else has changed.

“I don’t think about titles. I have one now, but it’s more embarrassing than anything else when people I’ve known my entire life call me judge. No one does that at home.”

Since home is where Ables’ heart is, that’s fine by him. He and Kayle enjoy watching their 15-year-old, Trey, play lacrosse, and their 12-year-old, Noah, participate in whichever activity has captivated him for the moment. They also attend church together and travel as a family.

Perhaps Ables has a bit of his no-nonsense colleagues in him. However, as his gallery of superhero posters suggests, he’s not one to put on airs.

“I’m not worried about appearances,” he says. “I simply try to do what I believe is right – and do it to the best of my ability.”