Circuit Court Judge Jerome Melson didn’t want me to interview him for the magazine—not because he was worried that I’d write something negative about him but because he didn’t feel he was interesting enough to merit a piece. He neither wanted nor needed the spotlight.
Eventually, we got him to agree to the interview, and I arranged a time to meet at the courthouse. When I arrived, he smiled and greeted me in his softspoken voice before leading me to his office. In one of his cabinets, he had a box of Tootsie Pops to give to children in adoption cases, which he described as one of the most rewarding aspects of his job—uniting children with loving parents.
Jerome Melson is a circuit court judge in Knoxville. He was appointed by Governor Bill Lee in 2021. He deals mostly in civil lawsuits, not criminal ones. This includes, for example, malpractice lawsuits against physicians, discrimination lawsuits against companies, and a wide variety of personal injury and contract claims.
I asked him how he became a judge and he said, “I was a lawyer first. I practiced here in Knoxville and East Tennessee since 1988.” When an opening for this position appeared, Melson felt like, after his long career in law, he had something to offer by serving his community as a judge. He applied along with several other candidates—who he emphasized were very competent and qualified—and he was chosen by Bill Lee for the job. It is a “high privilege,” Melson said.
When I inquired about what he wanted to accomplish in this position, he said that he wanted to “faithfully apply the law” and diligently manage the docket in what is a busy court.
Next, I asked about the most difficult part of his job. Melson explained that the most difficult part was the sheer volume of information judges need to know for every case. He pointed to a stack of papers larger than the Bible that he needed to read by Monday in order to make a single decision. He said he always does his best, as each case he oversees can drastically affect someone’s life. I could tell he took this responsibility very seriously.
“What are qualities someone needs to be a good judge?” I asked. Melson chuckled, saying that he’d just started and some of the more experienced judges might know better. But he promised to answer as well as he could.
“You’ve got to be a good administrator, respectful of the time of the jurors,” he said. “You’ve got to be good at explaining things to them, guiding a jury through that process.” Other qualities he mentioned were, “Diligence, patience, courtesy, and a commitment to the rule of law.” He also added compassion, saying, “I think this job is making me a more compassionate person.”
Judge Melson said, “The rule of law is of paramount importance in any healthy democratic government, and so from the founding of this country to the present, there’s always been a need for court systems to adjudicate disputes between citizens in a manner that treats everyone equally under the law. Over the generations of this country’s history, we have had many periods when the courts have been called upon to address very serious disputes, and our democracy and the integrity of our republic have benefited greatly from competent trial judges. I strive to be one of those.”
Jerome Melson is well-spoken, like any good lawyer, but what struck me most in our interview was his warmth and friendliness. Even with mountains of paperwork on his desk, he still took the time before our interview to get to know me. We chatted about our favorite books, and he asked me for some recommendations on what to read. Likewise, I left the interview with a list of authors he suggested I check out. Altogether, he struck me as a kind, humble man.
As I was leaving, Melson asked me not to make this piece too long, and if I started writing and realized it wasn’t interesting enough, I could just scrap it.
“It’s the job that’s the story,” he said, “not me.”
I’m sorry, Mr. Melson, but I have to disagree.