Judge Easter New President of Tennessee Judicial Conference

July 26, 2018

Williamson County resident Judge Timothy Easter has been there.

As a former trial court judge, he has seen the crammed dockets. He has felt the pressure that comes with having to thoughtfully adjudicate a ceaseless flow of cases. 

And, even though he currently sits on the Court of Criminal Appeals, one step below the Tennessee Supreme Court in the state’s appellate process, his past experience still informs the work he does today in a number of ways.

That experience will be especially valuable in Judge Easter’s new role as president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, an organization made up of the state’s 186 trial and appellate court judges. Judge Easter was named the new president at the TJC’s annual meeting in Memphis.

He brings to the position an understanding cultivated from his history both on the bench and in other capacities in the justice system. Judge Easter also brings with him an openness to new ideas and ways of thinking, apparent in his desire to make the increasingly popular concept of mindfulness one of the main focuses of his term. 

Judge Easter’s history on the bench began in 1998, when he was first appointed to the 21st Judicial District Circuit Court, serving Hickman, Lewis, Perry, and Williamson Counties. In 2014, he was appointed to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both positions have given Judge Easter the opportunity to witness and appreciate the unique camaraderie that exists between judges throughout the state. The title of “judge” or “chancellor” may be a requirement for membership, but once you’re in the TJC, you’re more like a brother or a sister.

“One of the first things I recognized when I came to the TJC in 1998 is this is a family,” he said. “These professionals care about one another, whether they are on the Supreme Court, an intermediate court, or a trial court. And that’s really what I want to continue to foster during this year. We will be there for each other through the good times and the bad times, both in or out of the courtroom. When a colleague’s family is hit with a severe blow, the TJC shows up. That’s what the conference is to me more than anything. We are stronger when we stand together to face the storms of life.” 

Judge Easter recently became acquainted with a concept that he believes can help better prepare all TJC members to deal not only with life’s storms, but also with the everyday demands of what can be a very stressful job. He hopes to explore the concept further during his time as TJC president.

“A topic that has really been impactful to me lately is this concept of leadership through mindfulness—being in the moment and not worrying about mistakes made in the past either as an individual judge or as a conference,” he said. “We’ve all made mistakes. We’re not going to focus on those, and at the same time we’re not being overly anxious about what may or may not happen tomorrow. I am learning that a good leader needs to be in the moment, right now, and focusing on what’s best for today. It is a healthy way to be judicious.”

Mindfulness has been the subject of several conference presentations that Judge Easter has attended recently. In fact, he and a group of other judges and attorneys attended a presentation by the Tennessee Lawyers Assistance Program (TLAP) the day before he was sworn in as president of the TJC.

“We sat there, judges and attorneys alike, and meditated for 10 minutes,” he said. “It was mind-changing just to slow down.”

Judge Easter is so intrigued by the idea of mindfulness that he devoted some of his first remarks as TJC president to the subject.

“It was part of my message to conference members when I got the gavel in Memphis,” he said. “I’m not sure how it works, how awkward it is and all, but I’ve heard so much about it lately that I think it is worth trying to and think how we can apply that to the judicial conference.”

Of course, for Judge Easter and many other judges in Tennessee, a frantic pace is nothing new, even if the digital age gadgets that can exacerbate it are.

 “I wish I’d known about mindfulness earlier,” Judge Easter said, referring both to his bustling days as a circuit court judge serving four counties and his days in private practice.

He remembers those times well, and they have instilled in him an unyielding admiration for the difficult work of trial judges, who make up the bulk of TJC membership.

“A trial judge who has so much thrown at him or her at a rapid rate with runaway dockets which require making difficult calls on the fly, I have a lot of respect for that legal skill,” he said. “It’s true now as an appellate judge reviewing the work of the trial judges that Tennessee’s trial judges get it right so often, particularly in those circumstances where their dockets are so full. We have the opportunity as an appellate court of sitting back and deliberating and looking at an issue for days to determine if that issue was decided correctly or not. A trial judge normally must make the call immediately because they’ve literally got 15 or 20 other cases on the docket that day with thorny issues to decide. Or perhaps a room full of jurors looking at the trial judge to make the call and make it now!”

While his time as a circuit judge was formative for Judge Easter, it does not tell his whole story. Born in 1960 in Montgomery County, Virginia, Judge Easter moved to the Nashville area in 1970 with his mother, father, and brothers. He attended David Lipscomb Campus School, now Lipscomb Academy. Judge Easter began at Lipscomb in the 5th grade and stayed there all the way through college. He graduated from Lipscomb University in 1982.

“I loved my Lipscomb experience,” he said. “I would not take anything for it.” The affinity for the school has since passed down generations. Judge Easter’s older daughter, Amy, attended Lipscomb just like her dad straight through university, while his youngest, Emily, attended through high school.

After graduating from Lipscomb University, Judge Easter landed a job working on Senator Lamar Alexander’s 1982 gubernatorial campaign. It was a low-level job, but one that Judge Easter enjoyed. Additionally, he met many people there that would later be influential in the beginning of his judicial career.

Next up was law school. Judge Easter attended the Nashville School of Law, where he did more than just live the life of a law student. Starting in 1986, he began working in the newly created position of victim witness coordinator in the 21st Judicial District. Victim witness coordinators act as liaisons between victims of crimes and the criminal justice system. The job was an eye-opening one. 

“I learned a lot about the human condition and dealing with people who have been deeply touched by some sort of tragedy,” he said. “At the time I didn’t realize it would be such a vital thing for me down the road.”

Following law school graduation in 1989, Judge Easter was appointed as an assistant district attorney in the 21st Judicial District by District Attorney General Joe Baugh. He stayed there for several years before entering private practice.

In 1997, a new circuit court division was created in the 21st Judicial District. With the help of mentors like General Baugh and others, Judge Easter was appointed to the seat by Governor Don Sundquist in January 1998. He did not have much time to settle in as he had to run for election in May.

“I was learning how to be a judge, closing down my private practice and campaigning at the same time,” he remembered. “That was a very hectic time in my life.”

Judge Easter went on to win the primary, and he ran unopposed in the general election. He ran unopposed and was twice reelected in 2006 and 2014.

As a judge in the 21st Judicial District, Judge Easter served areas that differed vastly in socio-economic terms.

The counties and cities in his district were more alike than different, though, especially when it came to the issue of addiction and its role in crime. Judge Easter recognized that and addressed it with what would become one of his proudest achievements: the establishment of the 21st Judicial District Drug Court.

Judge Easter and his former colleague, Judge Donald P. Harris, started the court in 2000 to give non-violent drug offenders in the district a path toward rehabilitation that focused on comprehensive treatment rather than incarceration.

The impetus for the creation of the court came from the numerous real-life examples of addiction Judge Easter and Judge Harris saw in the courtroom, even when presiding in more affluent areas.

“Part of the reason that drove us to start a recovery court was seeing a growing population of otherwise solid citizens, young or old, committing crime because of an out of control life driven by addition to drugs and or alcohol,” he said. “Many were addicted to prescription medicine that once was legitimately prescribed.”

Judge Easter expected some pushback in certain parts of the district when he first raised the issue of drug courts. He thought he would possibly be accused of being soft on crime. That did not happen.

“What I quickly found is that addiction has touched nearly everybody’s life,” he said. “Maybe not them individually, but most know an uncle, an aunt, a son or daughter, somebody at church, a neighbor’s kid. We all know good people who are bitten by addiction, and they would agree that putting that person in prison is not the answer.”

While the 21st Judicial District Drug Court was designed to positively impact the lives of those struggling with addiction, it ended up having a profound impact on Judge Easter as well.

“That was a life changer for me at so many levels,” he said. “I came to understand addiction in a way that as a former prosecutor I never thought I would. As a prosecutor I just thought, you just get over it; man up, and get over it. That didn’t work. I would see the same people over and over and over again. The same people I once prosecuted would in some cases honor me by retaining me to be their attorney when I was in private practice, and then years later they would stand in front of me to be sentenced yet again for a new crime, driven by addiction.” 

Judge Easter served on the 21st Judicial District Circuit Court for 16 years before Governor Bill Haslam appointed him to the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2014.

Being a judge on the appellate level is a different day-to-day experience than being a trial court judge. Judge Easter misses the spontaneity and excitement that comes with a jury trial, but his present position has its own distinct advantages. More than anything, he enjoys the process of poring over a case and refining legal arguments in intriguing conversation with his clerks and colleagues.

“At this point in my life it’s very rewarding to know that how we interpret a particular issue has the possibility of shaping the law on particular issue,” he said.

Just as his thoughts on legal interpretation have become sharpened and refined over the years, so, too, have Judge Easter’s thoughts on what it means to be a judge. He realizes more than ever the importance of recognizing that “there is a human element that can’t be lost in the equation” when you are a judge.

One of the ways that Judge Easter tries to keep in tune with that human element is by volunteering in community organizations. He has served on various boards throughout his career, including the YMCA’s board of directors. He has found the experience to be essential, both from a personal and judicial perspective.

“That helps develop that human element,” he said. “If a judge just immerses himself or herself in the courtroom, they could lose a different window to see things through.”

This greater appreciation for the human element of the law is apparent in the way that judges make their decisions, Judge Easter said. It becomes embedded in a good judge’s jurisprudence.

As he looks forward to his year as head of the TJC, Judge Easter seeks to emulate those distinguished jurists who have come before him. He has had the good fortune to know many of them.

“I’m grateful for the examples of leadership that I have seen in the conference for the last 20 years,” he said. “Some really wonderful, qualified, good people who just happen to be judges.”