Note: This story was updated at 11:30 a.m.
CLINTON—They’ve traded accusations of false claims and “mudslinging” and challenged each other on their courtroom experience. The debate has spilled over into mailed flyers, newspaper ads, and candidate forums.
On one side is Clinton attorney Michael Farley, a former Clinton City Council member and current city judge who is running for Anderson County chancellor in the Republican primary on Tuesday. On the other is Nicki Cantrell, who is also a Republican and Clinton attorney.
In particular, Farley has raised questions about the number of jury trials that Cantrell has handled and the number of contested hearings she’s had in Anderson County Chancery Court. He’s suggested she’s not telling the truth about her experience.
“If you check with the clerks, it’s not backed up,” Farley said. “She doesn’t have the experience I have.”
He said it’s hard to put a number on the total jury trials he’s had in the past 18 years, but he said it’s “a lot.” Farley estimated he’s probably had more than 1,000 contested hearings in all courts, including in civil, criminal, and chancery courts. He said he did divorce cases for the first five or 10 years he practiced and, among other things, does a few chancery cases now.
Cantrell has accused Farley of “mudslinging.” But Farley, who said he has been publicly endorsed by more than 70 attorneys, said he doesn’t think that providing information on the number of cases handled by each candidate is “mudslinging.”
Cantrell, who has said she has practiced almost exclusively in chancery courts in East Tennessee, has also dismissed claims by Anderson County Clerk and Master Steve Queener as being politically motivated. Queener—who is the clerk for Chancery Court, child support, and probate—has said Cantrell has done a handful of probates and one contested case in Anderson County.
“I know every lawyer that practices in this court,” said Queener, who has been clerk and master for 15 years but said he hadn’t met Cantrell until recently. “However, to be fair, I checked our records and see that she has appeared a handful of times in cases over those many years, but she certainly does not have any substantial record as a lawyer in the Anderson County Chancery Court.”
Queener, who is appointed by the chancellor and has two years remaining in his six-year term, acknowledged that he has donated $500 to Farley’s campaign and the two are longtime friends, but he said he’s just stating the facts.
“It’s not a position that you can learn on the job,” Queener said of the chancellor’s position.
Cantrell has not given any estimates of the number of trials or contested hearings in which she has participated. She has instead issued more general statements about her experience.
“I could go and get you numbers, and they would be equal to his,” she said in April. “I’ve been in Chancery Court in this county and surrounding counties for 10 years, and I stand by that statement.”
In another statement Saturday, she said she has done “numerous adoptions, contested and agreed conservatorships, probated many estates, some extremely contested, and routinely handle(s) divorces and child custody issues, both agreed and contested.”
On Friday, Oak Ridge Today talked to the current chancellor, William Lantrip, about the experience of the three Republican candidates for chancellor in Anderson County. The third candidate is Phil Harber, who seems to have maintained a lower profile. For example, he did not participate in an Anderson County Republican Party candidate forum in Oak Ridge on April 8, and he also did not take part in the April 24 forum organized by the Norris Bulletin at Anderson County High School.
There is no Democratic candidate, meaning Tuesday’s primary election will essentially decide the race before the Anderson County general election on Aug. 7.
Neither Queener nor Lantrip have information on the experience of the three candidates outside Anderson County.
Lantrip is retiring at the end of June after 25 years on the bench. He said judicial ethics prohibit him from endorsing anyone.
Lantrip said Farley once worked with Ron Ridenour and Don Elledge at the Ridenour Law Firm, and he probably tried as many domestic cases such as divorces and property disputes as any young lawyer, and he was one of the leading litigants in Anderson County Chancery Court.
“He filled up many of my days with trials,” Lantrip said. “He’s had trials in my court.”
He said Cantrell appeared in his court within the past two years.
“She’s never had a real trial since I’ve known of her,” Lantrip said.
He said Cantrell had one brief hearing in his court that lasted about one hour and three to four uncontested divorces in his chambers in the past month.
“Her presence here has been limited and primarily in the area of probating wills and two to three conservatorships,” but nothing major, Lantrip said.
Still, he said Cantrell graduated toward the top of her class and is smart and capable.
The chancellor said the court is fast-moving, and it involves more than domestic cases, also including property disputes and appeals of government decisions, for example. The chancellor also sometimes hears Circuit Court cases, sits as the Circuit Court judge, and hears Juvenile Court appeals.
“There’s more to it than just family law and probate,” Lantrip said.
He said Farley has probably had close to 100 or more trials in his court, and he knows the procedures and rules of evidence. Lantrip, who is a former Oak Ridge city attorney, said Farley is regularly in Chancery Court on orders of protection and some child support cases.
He said Farley’s practice is now concentrated on criminal cases and on his service as a Clinton municipal judge. Most of his trials are in General Sessions and Criminal and Circuit Court.
The chancellor said Harber has also had cases in Chancery Court, including probate and property cases. Lantrip said Harber hasn’t had a lot of trials in his court, but he has appeared there and handled cases there. One child support case went up to the Court of Appeals, Lantrip said.