Life did not start out easily for Judge Don Elledge. Born into a housing project built for the economically deprived during the New Deal era in Charleston, West Virginia, Judge Elledge’s living conditions took a turn for the worse after he moved to DeKalb County in Tennessee just before he started first grade.
The small house that he shared there with his three sisters, his mother, and his stepfather was in reality even smaller than it looked from the outside since one room was off limits due to a collapsed floor. Not only did the new home lack a bathroom, it did not even have an outhouse. The nearby creek bank, located between the dog pen and the chicken coop, took care of those needs. And then there were the rodents. Sometimes they would get trapped in the walls and die, smelling up the place. Other times, Judge Elledge would see them, often when he was trying to get some sleep.
“Many nights I would sit in my bed and watch rats eat d-Con out of mason jar lids,” Judge Elledge recently remembered.
It was hardly an auspicious beginning for a judge, especially for one who has just been named the president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference.
Judge Elledge reflected on the improbability of his life’s trajectory just after he was formally announced as the TJC’s new president at its most recent conference in Nashville.
“If you’d talked to that boy who was watching those rats back then and somebody told him you’re gonna be standing here president of an organization that consists of some of the greatest legal minds, not only in Tennessee, but in the United States…I would’ve said you’re out of your mind,” Judge Elledge said.
It’s a true story, though, and one that is not yet finished.
But back to the beginning. Judge Elledge’s path from a dilapidated country shack, to the bench, and then the top leadership position at the TJC is one of self-determination certainly, but it’s also one that he partially credits to an influential family member.
It is not his mother or father, who were both out of the picture at various times throughout his childhood, but his Uncle Ted who Judge Elledge said helped instill in him a desire to dream big.
Uncle Ted, his mother’s brother, worked his way through school on scholarships, got a degree in architecture, and became a celebrated architect in West Virginia.
“He was my inspiration, and he was someone I would always go to when I needed advice,” Judge Elledge said. “He told me if you work hard enough you can accomplish your goals.”
Judge Elledge took the advice to heart, working throughout high school while at the same time excelling academically and athletically, becoming both class president and captain of the football team.
That hard work got him a partial scholarship to Tennessee Tech University, where he continued to play football, although not as successfully, as he readily admits. Following a year spent as a “tackling dummy,” in his words, Judge Elledge “realized quickly my future was somewhere else.”
Upon his graduation from Tennessee Tech in 1971, Judge Elledge reported for military service. He was commissioned through the ROTC program, and ended up serving as an infantry officer at Fort Benning in Georgia.
When his duty ended and he went home to Tennessee, Judge Elledge worked as a fourth grade teacher and a high school football coach in Smithville.
Around this time, he also enrolled in the YMCA Night Law School in Nashville (now the Nashville School of Law). The 120-mile nightly commute there and back from Smithville was a challenge, but one that he put up with until he moved to Nashville and worked for a construction company for the last couple of years of law school.
After earning his law degree, Judge Elledge went into private practice, first setting up shop for a couple of years in Sparta, and then in Clinton, where he has remained ever since.
His specialty was domestic and criminal defense work. He did that from 1979 to 2005, a fruitful time in his professional life, but one punctuated by tragedy in his personal life. In 1997, his wife Kathy died, and he became a single parent to his three girls, Courtney, Keely, and Christy.
“It was the most horrific time of my life,” Judge Elledge remembers.
Judge Elledge stayed in private practice for another eight years, before he decided to change course professionally and apply for a spot on the 7th Judicial District Circuit Court upon the retirement of Judge James B. Scott, Jr.
He had not had a lifelong ambition to be a judge, but others suggested to him that he should run and he decided he liked the idea.
“Fortunately nobody filed against me,” Judge Elledge says with a smile.
In September 2005, he was appointed to the court by Governor Phil Bredesen and settled into the role of judge. Initially, one of the main changes to his life was noted by his children.
“My kids asked, Daddy why don’t we have any money?” Judge Elledge jokes.
In reality, though, Judge Elledge found that, while the new job was certainly different, it allowed him to use many of the skills and much of the knowledge he had developed in his previous career.
“I use in practice every day as a judge something I learned as an attorney,” Judge Elledge says.
Take, for instance, his heavy emphasis on the importance of preparation.
“As a practicing attorney, I never walked in the courtroom where I hadn’t interviewed every prospective witness in the courtroom,” Judge Elledge says. He made it a point to be thoroughly familiar with whatever case he was arguing, and he still prides himself on his attention to detail.
In his years of private practice, Judge Elledge also learned to appreciate the fact that not everyone coming to court is going to be truthful.
“I always thought the job of an attorney would be so easy because everybody’s sworn to tell the truth, it’s a felony if you don’t,” he says. He soon found out that was not the case, unfortunately. As a judge, he has no respect for lying on the stand, no matter who does it.
What he does have great respect for are lawyers who come to his courtroom well-prepared to argue for their clients. It is one of the great joys of his job.
“I enjoy trying jury trials,” he says. “I love when I’ve got two good attorneys trying a case in front of me. That’s what the practice of law is all about, and I love it.”
His love for the law has been apparent throughout his career, both in his day-to-day work and in the numerous voluntary positions he has held. For instance, while a lawyer, he sat on the Board of Professional Responsibility’s Disciplinary Hearing Panel for six years and was a member of the Tennessee Bar Association’s House of Delegates for six years. Additionally, he served, at various times, as president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer of the Anderson County Bar Association.
Judge Ellledge has also shown a continual devotion to his community and his family through the volunteer positions he has taken outside the legal profession. He was a member of the Clinton City Schools’ Board of Education for 13 years, spending part of that time as chairman. He also sat on the City of Clinton Regional Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals for nine years and is a past president of the Clinton Civitan Club. Especially close to his heart are the many years he spent as a girls softball coach. In 2010, his team won the state championship and went on to place seventh in the national tournament.
Nowadays, the role of grandparent can be added to his many achievements. This father of three girls is the proud grandfather of three grandsons. He is also a stepparent, having married Kimberly, a mother of two adult children, four years ago.
Now, nearly 15 years into his judicial career, Judge Elledge is tackling his newest role, as president of the TJC, with enthusiasm. He has a healthy list of topics he hopes to focus on over the next year as TJC president, from redistricting, to judicial resources allocation, to judicial assistants pay, and more.
And while it might seem ambitious, Judge Elledge is willing to work hard for an organization that has meant so much to him over the years. He can still remember clearly the first TJC he ever attended, back in October 2005 when Judge Arthur Bennett was in the position that Judge Elledge now occupies.
“He made the statement that this is your new family,” Judge Elledge recalls. They are words that have stuck with him over the years, mainly because he has found them to be so true.
“It truly is like a family,” he says. “There are people that became friends and close friends and I frankly just love the conference.”