Nearly 50 years on bench

By Damon Lawrence roanecounty.com
Dec. 31 won’t just mark the end of 2015 for Criminal Court Judge E. Eugene Eblen.
It could also mark the end of his tenure.

Eblen said Monday that he plans to retire at the end of the year.

“I’ll have been doing this for 48-and-1/2 years when that rolls around, and I’m turning 80,” he said. “When you start hitting your 80s, it’s about time to think about slowing down.”

Eblen attended the University of Tennessee after graduating from South Harriman High School. He got his law degree in 1962. He took over as Roane County General Sessions Court judge on July 1, 1967.

He took over as criminal court judge for the 9th Judicial District on Sept. 1, 1978, and has held that position ever since.

“I think he’s done a good job,” Rockwood attorney J. Polk Cooley said. “I knew his daddy, and he’s a lot like his daddy. He doesn’t let anything get him excited.”

Don Gooch has served as Eblen’s bailiff in Roane County Criminal Court since the 1990s.

“You can’t understand unless you’ve worked with Judge Eblen just how much he’s familiar with the law,” Gooch said. “It will be hard finding a replacement with his qualifications.”

Eblen said he expects Gooch will quit once he retires.

“That’s possible,” Gooch said.

The 9th Judicial District covers Roane, Loudon, Meigs and Morgan counties. District Attorney General Russell Johnson said Eblen’s nearly 37-year tenure as criminal court judge is almost unprecedented.

“To realize that he was on the General Sessions Court bench before that means that he has played the most prominent of roles in our criminal justice system for approximately five decades,” Johnson said.

Johnson said Eblen has been signaling for some time that he would probably retire at the end of 2015.

“Now that he has become more certain in his desire to step down, I still cannot imagine what it will be like not to have him on the bench,” Johnson said.

“He has provided a certain consistency in his rulings and his sentencing of defendants, so much so that we know what to expect and, therefore, conform our plea offers accordingly.”

Ninth Judicial District Public Defender Kim Nelson said she’s thankful that she’s had the privilege to work with Eblen as an attorney practicing in his court and during her four years as Roane County circuit court clerk.

“He has always been there willing to help anytime I needed his wise counsel,” she said. “His retirement from the bench after nearly 50 years will leave a void that will be impossible to fill.”

Eblen said he’ll miss serving as judge.

“I probably won’t know what to do for a while,” he said.

Eblen ran unopposed in last year’s election. There will be more than six years left in his term if he steps down at the end of the year.

The governor will appoint his replacement, and then a special election will be held in the summer of 2016.