22nd Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Stella Hargrove Announces August 2022 Retirement

First female prosecuting attorney in the 22nd judicial district, first female circuit court judge in the 22nd judicial district, and first female president of the Maury County Bar Association. Judge Stella Hargrove has broken barriers and set new standards throughout her career.

“I’m really proud of that for women,” Judge Hargrove said. “I’ve been a lawyer since 1977, so it will be 45 years when I retire and I’m certainly ready. When I started in ’77, there was one female lawyer that started the year before.”

In 1998, an additional judgeship was added to the 22nd Judicial District, which includes Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties, in response to the growing population. Judge Hargrove seized the opportunity, ran a campaign, and won the election.

“She inspires people, all of us, men and women, in what she’s had to overcome to become a circuit court judge,” said Judge Christopher Sockwell of the 22nd Judicial District Circuit Court. “You have to remember, when she first started in law school and became a lawyer, it was more of a man’s club. There weren’t that many women practicing and in positions of authority, and she not only did well, she thrived and overcame any obstacles that were put in front of her and eventually was elected circuit judge.”

Throughout her career, Judge Hargrove was known for taking the tough cases, the ones that involved child abuse or murder. She’s not sure how it started.

“I prosecuted, so perhaps that’s one of the reasons,” she said. “I prosecuted for over ten years and I was just drawn to criminal law more than civil. I have done and still do quite a bit of domestic cases, which are difficult. Termination of parental rights. They are very emotional and difficult. All of them are appealed, of course. I have a lot of them still pending. I will see them through.”

Judge Hargrove served as the Assistant District Attorney, 22nd Judicial District, from 1988 – 1998. She served as a Special Prosecutor of drugs for two years and a Special Prosecutor of Child Abuse for two years.

“One of the things we are very appreciative of is she does all the termination of parental rights cases,” Judge Sockwell said. “Again, those are extremely difficult cases and they require a lot of findings. There’s a lot of things a judge has to do in those types of cases that are very difficult to listen to, as well, because you are basically looking at whether an individual’s parental rights should be taken away. It’s a lot like soldiers and police officers. They run to the sound of the gun, instead of running away. She’s always stepped up on these types of cases and, again, done a wonderful job with them. She’s always had an interest in justice for children and I think when she does, she is extremely fair, but she’s going to make sure those children are taken care of.”

In true judicial fashion Judge Hargrove is determined to finish her duty before retiring, which includes overseeing criminal trials through June.

“If there’s a conviction, I will be sentencing in July,” she said. “I am also going to do determination cases through July, hopefully, and write my opinions in August. I can get all that done before I retire.”

When it comes to the legal profession, Judge Hargrove’s always been driven to succeed. It’s an interest that piqued when she was in high school.

“I started out as a legal secretary in high school,” Judge Hargrove said. “In the 12th grade, I rode the bus to a bank and on the second floor of that building a young lawyer was setting up his practice. His name was Bob Sanders. He was a great influence in my life. He treated me more like a clerk than a secretary. And so I really wanted to go to law school and finally had a chance to do that once I met my future husband. We met in 1968. I couldn’t afford college. When Columbia State came to Columbia in 1967, I was going to school at night and getting as many hours as I could working in the daytime. I was able, with my future husband’s financial help, to transfer to UT Knoxville. I think I transferred 100 hours and did well.”

Judge Hargrove graduated from UT Knoxville in 1972 and married Dr. Joel Hargrove, a long-time obstetrician and gynecologist in the Columbia area.

“My clock was ticking and I wanted to have a baby,” Judge Hargrove said. “Women wanted to have babies younger then, I think, than they do now. I was able to go to school at night and have my babies. I finished law school at Nashville School of Law in 1977 and went into practice.”

Judge Hargrove gave birth to their daughter, Julia Christine Hargrove Staley, while in law school and daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hargrove, after entering private practice. She worked in private practice, primarily focusing on primarily in domestic relations, including real estate, wills and estates, and criminal defense, until 1988, when she took on the role of Assistant District Attorney.  

Once on the bench, she was instrumental in starting the drug recovery court in Maury County.

“I started the recovery court in Maury County, and Lawrence County was actually started in General Sessions court,” Judge Hargrove said. “That judge passed away and so I combined the two counties. I had some success. I will say that Judge (David) Allen has taken over the recovery courts, and he’s doing a great job. I’m proud to still have that court in our jurisdiction.”

Judge Hargrove hints at changes to her jurisdiction after her departure, specifically the possible addition of a fifth judge. Although it’s not on the ballot yet, she is already encouraging a female colleague to throw her hat in the ring when it does happen. As for the current ballot and the judge who takes her place, she offers some advice.

“I’m hoping that that person will push for more trials,” Judge Hargrove said. “I don’t think we have enough jury trials, and I say that because jury trials give these young lawyers great experience. Some of the young lawyers I deal with have never had a jury trial in 15-20 years. We have the cases that are pled out and that’s necessary. We can’t try everything. I’m hoping the judge will be selective and push for trials, and not be so soft on plea bargains. I would like to see that happen.”

It’s no surprise, considering Judge Hargrove favors criminal law.

“I really enjoy the trials,” she said. “Unlike an appellate judge, who would look at files and deal with lawyers, I like dealing with the people. I really love being a trial judge, and I love trials. I like watching cases come together, and I love it all. I like the domestic cases, but I think the criminal law has certainly been my favorite.”

Her work in criminal cases has earned her the admiration of her fellow judges.

“She is one of the best criminal trial judges around,” Judge Sockwell said. “She does a magnificent job of handling the trial, and she never loses her composure. Everything she does is just very well thought out.”

However, her days on the bench were not without hardship.

“I had cancer, but I don’t need to talk about that because it was certainly curable,” Judge Hargrove said. “I do want to touch on the loss of my husband. He was an OBGYN for many years. We met in 1968 and we were married for a long time. He died in 2017. He had dementia. He turned my whole life around, a wonderful man, devoted husband. I could not be here without him. I can’t say enough good things about Joel.”

Four years after his passing, Judge Hargrove is once again welcoming companionship into her life.

“I have met someone and that’s given me more incentive to retire,” she said. “When I retire September 1, we plan to travel. He’s a wonderful person, also. He lives in Clearwater, Florida, so I’m going back and forth right now. He’s coming here, as well. We plan to only live in Tennessee four months out of the year and elsewhere the rest of the year. I’m really happy to embark on that new adventure.”

An adventure that includes trips to upper Michigan, Vermont, and the Northwest Coast, plus the purchase of a home in the location she finds most appealing.

Judge Hargrove is a member of the Maury County Bar Association, the Tennessee Bar Association, the Tennessee Trial Judge's Association and the Tennessee Bar Foundation. She is a member of the APSAC - A Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, National College of District Attorneys, the Hearing Committee - Board of Professional Responsibility, the American Association of University Women, and is a graduate of the National Judicial College.

Judge Hargrove is a member of Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, Columbia, Tennessee; a member of board of Columbia State Community College Foundation; a member of board of the University of Tennessee Alumni Association - Maury County Chapter; a member of Kiwanis Club of Columbia, Tennessee; a member of Maury Alliance; Life Member of the Canby Robison Society, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; and a member of Keyboard at the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University.

Judge Hargrove was honored as Woman of the Year by the Business and Professional Women's Club in 2000.