David A. Chase / The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland probably owes his seat to having the right friends.
It was 1995, Judge Donald Washburn had died mid-term and the Metro Council in Nashville needed to fill the seat. Some on the council expected a vetting process, with recommendations from the Nashville Bar Association.
Yet at the April 4 meeting that year, the council - over the objections of several of its members and some judges - skipped the vetting and rubber-stamped Moreland.
Thanks to longtime friend and former Councilman Jay West, General Sessions Court Judge Gale Robinson and other politically connected folks, Moreland was sworn in and took the bench two days later.
Today, he and his friends are under far more scrutiny. On June 8, after a call from his friend, local attorney Bryan Lewis, Moreland overruled a 12-hour domestic violence hold on prominent Nashville contractor David Chase, who was accused of beating his girlfriend. Two hours after being arrested, Chase was released by Moreland, and police say he returned to beat his girlfriend again.
Attorneys speak highly of Moreland. They describe him as accessible, giving, and stern but fair. He's credited with helping drug addicts who have come through the Treatment Court program he created 11 years ago. He also has distinguished himself as a Southeastern Conference football referee.
West, now executive director of the County Officials Association of Tennessee, acknowledged that his friend understands politics but said there's more to the man than that.
"He's savvy, yes," said West. "But I think that he should be looked at for his entire career, the people he's helped in his drug court, the people he's helped put their lives back together."
Moreland declined to be interviewed for this story.
He has publicly apologized and expressed regret for what happened June 8. But the case has raised questions about his close relationship with Lewis. Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson blasted Moreland in a letter recently, chiding his "cavalier attitude" toward the incident.
He said Moreland explained, "'This is just good ole boys doing what good ole boys do,' and that I should understand."
"For the record," Anderson wrote, "I don't understand."
Thousands of cases
A native Nashvillian, Moreland graduated from the Nashville School of Law in 1984. He worked in private practice until his appointment by the Metro Council in 1995.
Nearly any attorney who practices criminal law is bound to find him- or herself in front of Moreland, since General Sessions Court handles the lion's share of minor and serious crimes at some point in the process - more than 97,000 criminal cases in 2013 alone.
But he has had his critics.
Les Mondelli ran Davidson County's Probation Department for decades until his retirement in 2012. In 1998, Mondelli complained that the judge's employees were getting paid while not at work. He said his complaint went nowhere until a local television station's story in 2008 caught several of Moreland's employees golfing and doing personal business while on the clock.
"I filed a complaint that these two probation officers were not showing up for work," Mondelli said last week. "They said no and dismissed the complaint. It was a bunch of judges. What do you expect?"
"He did his best after that to get me fired," said Mondelli, who described Moreland's punishment - a non-public reprimand - as "a wet noodle."
Supporters rally to his side
Moreland's supporters last week started speaking out. On Wednesday, volunteer members of Moreland's Treatment Court invited The Tennessean to talk about the judge's work. The court treats nonviolent drug offenders who opt for an intense rehab program instead of jail.
Lyn Noland, one of the Treatment Court's volunteers, said Moreland's good deeds often escape notice. For example, she said, a Treatment Court participant's mother died recently, but because the participant couldn't afford a funeral, Moreland paid for everything out of his own pocket.
"He does these things out of the goodness of his heart," Noland said. "It's not for recognition, or he'd be all over the news."
Some supporters described Moreland as a champion for "lost causes" and a tireless community asset. Last year, when a halfway house flooded, they said Moreland, on his day off, rolled up on his Harley Davidson and helped clean up.
"He helped give me my life back," said Suzanne Durham, 47, of Madison, a 2009 graduate of Treatment Court. "He's big on giving people second chances, third chances, fourth chances, and would do anything to help anybody."
Jim Todd, a longtime defense attorney who considers Moreland a friend, said the judge's contact with Lewis on June 8 was clearly a mistake. But he said it's part of Moreland's personality to be accessible and friendly to those who appear in his court.
"Did Bryan Lewis call Judge Moreland because they're friends? Maybe," Todd said. "We all have friends. I'm friends with judges. I play golf with judges. You can't work in an environment and not develop friendships. The issue is whether or not you let those friendships incorrectly influence your decisions. I don't see that with Judge Moreland, because I'm in his court often."
An uncertain future
What comes next for Moreland is unknown.
He has resisted calls from several Metro Council members and state legislators to resign from the bench. It's unclear if he will face discipline, because judicial disciplinary actions are cloaked in secrecy. The Tennessee legislature may have the power to remove Moreland, but the process is complex and usually reserved for judges found guilty of crimes.
He faces no opposition in the August general election, all but assuring his re-election.
"We are a court of second chances," said Nan Casey, another volunteer member of the Treatment Court. "That's his motto."
Whether Moreland himself gets another chance appears to be up to him.
Contributing: Walter F. Roche Jr. of The Tennessean
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Read the original story: Judge connected, caring, and in the hot seat