Boyd and Brown battle for General Sessions Court Clerk

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 16, 2020 7:45 AM CT | Published: July 16, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles about all the races on the ballot as the July 17-Aug. 1 early voting period for the Aug. 6 election begins.

The only countywide race in the 2020 election year in Shelby County is a clerk’s position that oversees the largest set of court divisions in the state, taking in civil as well as criminal proceedings.

The race for General Sessions Court Clerk is also the only partisan local government race on the Aug. 6 ballot and a kind of political talisman for two local political parties already looking ahead to the 2022 county elections.

Others may see it as a speed bump on the way to the Nov. 3 presidential general election.

Republican Paul Boyd and Democrat Joe Brown advanced to the August ballot by winning primaries on the March Super Tuesday ballot.

They are running for the office held by Democrat Ed Stanton, who decided not to run for re-election.

Stanton marks end of clerk’s term and tenure with changes, goals, paper

The office is so obscure that if it is in the political spotlight, it is usually for something that has gone wrong in the operations of the complex set of legal tasks it oversees. Being off the public’s radar doesn’t necessarily mean an elected office is an easy job — albeit one with a six-figure annual salary — $106,906.

The office has 150 employees, 17 appointed by the clerk, as well as five offices. In addition to the 15 courtrooms — civil and criminal — the clerk oversees 11 judicial commissioners who make preliminary decisions on whether someone arrested and charged can be released or should remain in jail.

The clerk handles 100,000 criminal cases a year and more than 65,000 civil cases.

While the clerk is elected by voters, he or she serves a set of 15 judges — some civil and some criminal. The office is funded through the Shelby County consolidated budget approved by the Shelby County Commission.

The clerk answers to a lot of other elected officials.

Stanton was called before the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2019 to explain why it took four years to expunge the record of a citizen who followed all of the procedures and paid all of the necessary court costs.

Shelby County expungement practices questioned by Tennessee Supreme Court

A move to an online system of court documents that was plagued by glitches became a more complex controversy. The General Sessions judges for the criminal divisions insisted they had to have hard copies of some court paperwork in order for it to be legal. As a result, the office under Stanton includes a print shop that starts work three hours before the courts open.

Stanton’s predecessor, Otis Jackson, was suspended in 2011 by a majority of the General Sessions judges after he was indicted on charges of official misconduct for explicitly instructing office employees to raise money for his re-election effort.

The judges appointed Stanton, then the retired administrator of the civil divisions, to fill the position as Jackson was granted diversion on the charges — paperwork that was processed by the office Jackson once ran.

Jackson sued over his ouster in another court and lost.

Boyd is the former Shelby County Probate Court Clerk, elected during the Republican sweep of countywide offices in the 2010 elections to succeed outgoing clerk Chris Thomas, also a Republican. Boyd was re-elected in the second Republican sweep in 2014.

Shelby Republicans open campaign headquarters

Thomas, a former Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis City Schools board member, challenged Boyd’s re-election bid in the 2018 GOP primaries and upset Boyd. Thomas then lost to Democratic nominee Bill Morrison as Democrats swept that year’s county elections.

Boyd has been active in numerous Republican campaigns before and since becoming an elected official. 

Brown is the second-longest serving Memphis City Council member in the 52-year history of the mayor-council form of government. He left the council at the end of 2019 because of term limits that began with his 2011 term of office.

As he wrapped up his tenure on the council, he mounted an unsuccessful bid for city court clerk in the 2019 city elections.

In the 2020 Democratic primary, he emerged at the top of a field of 13 candidates, including five former or current employees of the clerk’s office.

Brown is president of Empire Inc., a janitorial supplies company in North Memphis that he has run since before he was appointed to the Memphis City Council in 1997. Brown filled the vacancy created by the death of Talib Karim Muhammad, representing a council super district covering half of the city.

Brown and Boyd are like other local candidates on the ballot grappling with how to campaign in a pandemic.

Unlike the other contenders, their campaign maps cover the entire county from Brown’s North Memphis base where grass roots politics is king, to the suburban towns and cities outside Memphis that are the heart of the Republican base in Shelby County.

“You’ve got to go and do like you did in the 1930s,” Boyd said. “Stand up on a hickory stump, stand up in the back of a truck and just project out and see who will listen.”

Brown and Boyd to meet in August in only countywide race of election year

Brown, who despite numerous attempts to reach him didn’t respond to requests for an interview, has made appeals on his Facebook page based on his name recognition and record as a council member.

He’s also made Facebook appeals referring to attacks on him.

“I think about those that have plotted against me, when I have never meant them any harm,” reads a July 3 post on his campaign page. “As I have walked with and stood up for people, it has hurt me in that there are those that want to continue casting stones at me. But God has the last say so and has always fought my battles.”

Boyd says his experience as Probate Court Clerk is applicable to holding the office of General Sessions Court Clerk.

“It’s the experience of dealing with judges. It’s the experience of working with attorneys, working with the Sheriff’s department and law enforcement,” he said. “It’s also the experience of working with the state legislature to get laws passed and get changes made to perfect the laws. It’s the experience of working with other clerks both around the county and around the state.”

City Council farewells reveal turbulent recent history, City Hall traditions

Brown, in his race for City Court Clerk last year and in Facebook posts this year, has claimed an equivalency in the constituent services that are part of being a City Council member.

“Do not forget to vote in these times of uncertainty and quests for representation that will stand for you the citizen,” Brown posted in June as the first of his yard signs were going up – the same signs he used in last year’s race with a different office as the bottom border of the signs.

Most of Brown’s posts have been about violent crime and the need for community policing.

But a Tuesday post sounded a familiar theme appeal common to all of the races for clerk positions that are part of Shelby County politics.

“We want to be part of the solution when it comes to assisting those that have to navigate the courts, the judges that run the courts and those individuals that have been affected by court rulings,” the post reads. “Give us the opportunity.”

Boyd says the clerk’s office is focused on a different part of the criminal justice system than what Brown talks about in his posts on crime. It also includes a civil side that is the rough equivalent of a small claims court and a criminal side that is the entry point for those arrested and charged before they move into state court.

Both sides of the court involve lots of citizens who don’t have attorneys, at least not at that point in their cases.

“The clerk’s office has the ability to explain the process to citizens who come through the court,” Boyd said. “If you don’t speak legalese and you’ve never been in a court before and you don’t know what’s going on, it can easily look like the system is just running you over.”

In Republican areas, the early vote push, even without a global pandemic, is as subtle as phone banking and mail pieces reminding voters where the early voting locations are. There is also the local Republican party’s endorsement ballot.

In Brown’s domain, it’s numerous endorsement ballots handed out at those early voting sites and, depending on how much money a campaign has and the expected turnout, renting vans to take voters to the polls.

Yard signs and social media as well as direct mail pieces are the new pandemic common ground for Democratic and Republican contenders.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our election coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


General Sessions Court Clerk 2020 Election Shelby County Paul Boyd Joe Brown Ed Stanton

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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