Farewell Reception Thrown for Longtime Criminal Court Judge, Drug Court Pioneer Seth Norman

September 28, 2018

One of Tennessee’s most distinguished jurists was honored at a retirement reception recently in Nashville.

An array of state and local leaders gathered at the reception to celebrate the career of the Honorable Seth Walker Norman, the founder of Tennessee’s first Drug Court and a Criminal Court judge in the 20th Judicial District for the past 28 years. Judge Norman stepped down from the bench at the end of August, but will retain the title of Senior Judge and will continue to be involved in the Davidson County Drug Court (DC4), which he established in 1996. The reception was held at the Justice A.A. Birch Building.

Speakers at the reception offered both personal reflections on their time working with Judge Norman and broader reflections on the positive impact that his work has had on those who have come through his courtroom as well as on the broader legal and law enforcement communities.

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins was the first to speak, calling Judge Norman “a true trailblazer…a man who brought Drug Court to the front and center before many of us knew what Drug Court meant.”

Chief Justice Bivins credited Judge Norman with helping to spread the “knowledge that you simply cannot incarcerate out of a drug problem. It takes treatment. It takes giving folks an opportunity. It takes a group of people who care. Through his work, and through his leadership, these courts have grown throughout our state and throughout our country.”

Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker remarked that Judge Norman’s passion for the people who participate in the Drug Court program has had a beneficial influence on not only individual lives and families, but on society.

“The work done by Judge Norman empowers agencies and communities to work together on innovative ways to address addiction and make our neighborhoods healthier, and thus, safer,” he said. “It empowers participants to beat the odds and triumph over adversity.”

He said that Judge Norman’s true legacy will be outside the courtroom “in the families that have been reunited; the children who have their parents home to help them with homework; the people who are now impacting our communities in a positive way, all because Judge Norman believed in their ability to triumph over addiction and helped provide them the path to do just that.”

District Attorney General Glenn Funk singled out the story of one individual in particular who had been empowered by Judge Norman to turn his life around. Funk had been unable to get through to the young man who was caught up in a life of drug dealing and drug abuse. By the time Funk finally convinced him to go to Drug Court, Funk estimated that the man likely only had weeks or months to live.

“I saw him about a year later and I didn’t even recognize him,” Funk said. “Now he’s over eight years drug-free. I didn’t save him, and Judge Norman didn’t save him, but Judge Norman gave him the support he needed to save himself.” Stories like these are why Funk refers to Judge Norman as “one of the greatest men this city’s ever known.”

Other colleagues and community members each had their own particular memories of Judge Norman, which they recalled fondly and reverently. Mayor David Briley spoke of his longtime friendship with Norman and his early days as an attorney in Judge Norman’s court.

“After you’ve been in front of him and have seen him in that court, you see what that toughness really means,” Mayor Briley said. “It’s about a love for your fellow human being, that’s what it really is. And over the last 20 years, he has become, I think, the most loving person in our town. That is truly the legacy that he leaves behind in Nashville.”

Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Chief Steve Anderson has known Judge Norman for decades, ever since Anderson was a patrol officer and Judge Norman was still a practicing attorney. Chief Anderson fondly remembered the experience of being questioned by Judge Norman in the courtroom.

“As he represented his clients, questioning us, he did it so respectfully that it would become almost an honor to be cross-examined by Judge Norman” he said. “I made up my mind right then I wanted to be like Seth Norman. I never quite got there but I’m still working on it.”

Chief Anderson also spoke about witnessing Judge Norman interact with people in Drug Court and seeing how those people walk away changed by the encounter.

“I watch him at the Drug Court, and you know he can be pretty stern, pretty gruff,” Anderson said. “And I watch him walk up to one of his clients and tell them in that stern, gruff voice what his expectations are or how they have failed to meet his expectations. And they walk away feeling like they’ve been hugged. I can tell you, Judge, that that twinkle in your eye gives you away.”

Along with these recollections from various leaders came several awards and commendations. Commissioner Parker presented Judge Norman with the Commissioner’s Coin of Excellence, thanking him for his “accountability, integrity, professionalism, and respect.” Chief Anderson gave Judge Norman a plaque in appreciation of his 28 years of service, while Chief Justice Bivins gave Judge Norman a medallion depicting the seal of the judiciary and the Tennessee state seal.

Two of Judge Norman’s colleagues at the Davidson County Drug Court, Jeri Thomas, the director of the Nashville Drug Court Support Foundation, and Janet Hobson, the director of DC4, also presented Judge Norman with a plaque. That plaque, conferred by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals (NADCP), applauded Judge Norman for “over two decades of tireless service that brought Drug Court to the community, transformed justice, and saved countless lives.”

After all of these honors were conferred, Judge Steve Dozier, a colleague of Judge Norman’s on the 20th Judicial District Criminal Court, introduced the man everyone was there to celebrate. He did so by reading aloud a passage from a book: “Nowhere in the world does a young boy or girl have a greater opportunity than here in Nashville; the gate to a good life is wide open; the chance for a quality education is abundant; the provision for encouragement and ambition abounds; the Old Society not only welcomes but yearns for the recruitment of the successful and ambitious; it has always and will continue to reward and honor those who work hard and do right.”

Judge Dozier then addressed Judge Norman. “You’ve worked hard and done what was right,” he said. The passage Judge Dozier read came from a book called “The Nashville I Knew,” written by Judge Norman’s father, Jack Norman.

Judge Norman’s remarks included both reminiscences and talk of the future.

“I’ve been around a long time,” he said, before observing that the day of the reception was exactly 61 years from the day he headed home from his service in the United States Air Force in a ’57 Chevrolet convertible.

Just a short time later Judge Norman entered the legal community with a job as a deputy clerk in General Sessions Court. He was admittedly a little green, as he humorously remembered.

“I didn’t know anything about courts or anything like that,” he said. “The first thing they did was send me over to call a docket. I’m sitting there on the bench and Judge John L. Draper turned to me and said, ‘Call the docket Mr. Clerk.’ I looked down at that docket. He said, ‘Call the docket,’ and I said, ‘I can’t because the first case on that docket was Anesthesiology Associates, and I’d never seen that word before in my whole life!”

Over time, though, that apprehensive young man turned into a formidable presence in the legal world. Judge Norman worked in private practice for 28 years before becoming a judge, a position he also held for 28 years before his recent retirement.

In his speech, Judge Norman recounted the genesis of his most widely praised accomplishment during that long career: the Davidson County Drug Court.

“About 22 years ago there were only three criminal judges in Davidson County, and we were loaded down with cases and most of them were drug cases,” Judge Norman said. “I was home one afternoon and saw on the news where they had created a Drug Court in Miami, Florida, and I thought, ‘Aha, that’s a good way to get another court in Davidson County. So I applied for what they called a study grant and we got that, and I applied for an implementation grant and we got that. And the Drug Court was up and running.  Since then it has been a pure pleasure to work with people in the Drug Court.”

He reserved special thanks for Hobson and Thomas, who he called “the backbones” of DC4. He considers them instrumental in the Drug Court’s success.

“I’ve said this many, many times, but it’s probably one of the best gigs in the world because the staff does all the work, and I get all the credit,” he said. “It would not work if you did not have the dedicated staff I have got.”

Judge Norman also thanked Governor Bill Haslam, who he referred to as “one of the most understanding men I’ve ever met in my life,” for his support. Indeed, he said, he has been lucky with those he has encountered during his career.

“I want you to understand that there are a lot of people still who say just lock them up until you dry them out,” he said. “It’s tragic but that’s what they do. I have been very fortunate over all these years in having people that understand how Drug Courts work and what they should do.”

Although Judge Norman’s days as a 20th Judicial District Criminal Court Judge are behind him now, he is planning to stay actively involved with his signature program in the future.

As Chief Justice Bivins pointed out, Judge Norman will continue to preside over the Davidson County Drug Court for the next year.

“We knew that we needed his continued guidance, his continued hand in doing this, and his continued voice in the community,” Chief Justice Bivins said.

And Judge Norman is also open to other opportunities that may arise. He mentioned that over the years he has been asked to travel to various cities in the United States like Casper, Wyoming, and, just last week, Fresno, California, to discuss running a Drug Court. Word continues to spread about Judge Norman’s work.

“This week we got the capper of all of them,” he said. “We got a call from Sydney, Australia wanting to know if they can come and see the Drug Court. If they want me to come to Sydney, I’ll be there next week.”

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeff Bivins with Judge Seth Norman at the reception