Judge to retire after nearly 50 years on the bench

KINGSTON — He's presided over thousands of criminal cases over nearly half a century, and he's about to lay his gavel down.
Ninth Judicial District Criminal Court Judge E. Eugene Eblen said he's retiring at the end of this year, ending almost 49 years on the bench.
Retirement plans "are kind of up in the air," said Eblen, who will be 80 when he steps down. He has no special bucket list, he indicated, "but as that age starts creeping up on you, I won't have the opportunity if I don't retire."
Those who know him say he's left his mark.
"Judge Eblen's institutional knowledge and wisdom cannot be duplicated or replaced," said District Attorney General Russell Johnson. "While he has never imposed himself or his position on anyone, his presence in the courtroom has always been recognized and will be missed."
Eblen, born in a South Harriman home, said he was a "notorious Republican" appointed by Democrat Gov. Buford Ellington to fill a Roane County General Sessions Court judgeship in July 1967.
"I don't know how that happened," he said of his appointment, "but there were patronage committees back then, and they recommended me."
Eblen was 30 years old. He was elected to the post the next year and re-elected in 1974.
"Back then," he said, "it was a part-time job that took up about full-time."
When the Criminal Court judgeship came open in 1978, Eblen ran against Don McMurray, who had been appointed by Gov. Ray Blanton to a vacancy, and won. Back then, it was the 4th Judicial District and consisted of Roane, Blount and Loudon counties.
That's the only opponent he's ever faced in five subsequent elections.
"When I turned my (campaign) reports in, I had zero donations," Eblen said. "I didn't accept any money, and I didn't spend any."
He now presides over the realigned 9th Judicial District, made up of Roane, Loudon, Morgan and Meigs counties.
Court officials describe Eblen as an even-tempered jurist who treats all who come before him fairly and equally.
"He understands the human condition ... and recognizes the plight that some folks fall into, be it of their own action or otherwise," Johnson said. "During jury trials and sentencing hearings, I have especially observed him protecting the rights of defendants while appreciating the perspective of the victims. ... Some judges try to dominate the courtroom. Not so Judge Eblen. He rarely interjects himself into the process other than to guide the opposing sides along when necessary."
Ever the jurist upholding the balanced scales of justice, Eblen declines to comment about any of the many high-profile cases he oversaw, even those long resolved.
"I never would have made it this long on the Circuit Court bench," he said, explaining that he felt civil cases typically wouldn't have been as interesting.
Over the years, there have been changes in the administration of justice. It's gotten more complex, sometimes making it "really difficult for jurors to understand," the judge said.
When he started, many criminal cases arose from alcohol-related incidents. Now, drugs often are the underlying factors, Eblen said.
Anecdotes abound. A defendant approached the bench one time and was nearly incoherent, Assistant District Attorney General Frank Harvey recalled.
"Judge Eblen inquired if he had been drinking, to which the defendant replied, ‘No, I'm just nervous.' " Harvey said. "Judge Eblen quickly opined, ‘Right. I can smell your nerves all the way up here.' "
Then there was the time a jury was being picked in a death-penalty case in Meigs County, and there were garlands on the courtroom rails and Christmas carols wafting through the windows from a choir outside.
"Judge Eblen wisely decided that was not a good matchup and thereafter said we would have no such cases in the Christmas season," Harvey said.
After Eblen retires, it'll be up to Gov. Bill Haslam to appoint his replacement, at least until August 2016. That's when a special election will be held to fill the remaining six years of Eblen's term