Longtime Rhea County Judge James “Jimmy” McKenzie passed away Saturday, Jan. 2, at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
McKenzie grew up on Third Avenue in Dayton, graduated from Dayton City School then continued on and graduated from Tennessee Military Institute in Sweetwater, Tenn., on June 3, 1962. He graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., on May 5, 1968, with a Bachelor of Science degree. McKenzie then graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Sanford University on Aug. 21, 1971, with a Doctor of Jurisprudence and was licensed to practice law on March 25, 1972.
McKenzie practiced law with Oliver Wendell McKenzie in Dayton from March 25, 1972, and continued private practice until Aug. 25, 1998, when he was elected as the first Rhea County Family Court Judge with jurisdiction being that of domestic relations, juvenile court, general session and civil and criminal cases.
12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said that McKenzie followed in his family’s footsteps and came from a family that held a “position of prominence in the legal community.”
“When I learned of the untimely death of former Rhea County General Sessions Court Judge Jimmy McKenzie, I could not help but feel that his passing marked an end of an era,” Taylor said. “I knew Jimmy McKenzie for almost 45 years, during which time we were defense co-counsel in several high profile criminal cases and later as courtroom adversaries in many criminal cases after I became a prosecuting attorney. I then appeared regularly before him once he became judge of the general sessions court.
“He will be sadly missed by members of the legal community here in Rhea County, and I have personally lost not only a fellow attorney, but a dear friend.”
Assistant Attorney General Will Dunn said that McKenzie was known for running a “tough but fair” courtroom.
“His time in that court was unique and colorful; even the BBC wanted to do a television special on his wit and wisdom from the bench,” Dunn said. “I found him to be a tough but fair in his rulings, like his concern about drug abuse in this county. He would rather send a drug abuser to rehab than jail if he thought that that would be beneficial.
“Any lawyer that appeared before him would not forget the experience. His decisions were based on down home logic, wit and the law, which was respected even if not in one’s favor. He was my friend and I’ll miss him. I can easily say he was one of the most unforgettable characters in my life.”
Nashville Attorney and childhood friend Craig Gabbert said, “I am so sad. Those of us who grew up on Third Avenue in Dayton, the Fords, the Gabberts and Jimmy were closer than friends and we all have spent many good times together. We’ve lost a brother.”
Dayton attorney Rebecca Hicks also spoke to McKenzie’s character and said he was a friend and mentor to those in the legal field.
“When he went on the bench as the General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge, it was an honor to practice in his court. Socrates stated that there were four essential characteristics of a good judge: ‘to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially,’” Hicks said. “Judge McKenzie embodied all those characteristics and more. He always labored to rule fairly and equitably and even when he ruled against you it was easy to accept because you knew he was following his conscience. Judge McKenzie had a special wit that kept you entertained in court and outside in the community.”
Dayton City Attorney Susan Arnold said that McKenzie served as a mentor and urged attorneys to act with “integrity, honesty and commitment to the practice of law.”
“When I came back home to practice law in his firm, he still expected those same qualities of integrity, honesty and commitment from all of those working in his office,” Arnold said. “This expectation never faltered and carried over to those lawyers who appeared before him as Judge McKenzie. […] He always extended a hand to help new attorneys, whether fresh out of law school or just new to the area. Judge McKenzie made himself available and was approachable to new attorneys who needed advice or help. […] I will certainly miss my friend and colleague Judge James W. McKenzie.”
McKenzie was also active in the community, even going so far as to hold mock court trials at the high school to teach students about the judicial system. Rhea County Sheriff Mike Neal said he admired McKenzie’s commitment to children and families.
“Judge McKenzie was instrumental in starting and approving many programs and outreach services to keep families together,” Neal said. “He was at the forefront of what is now our domestic violence program, giving families a second chance as well many other programs designed to strengthen families. It was an honor as sheriff to see his impact on the community, not only as judge, but in everyday life.”
McKenzie came from a long line of lawyers. His paternal grandfather, Ben G. McKenzie, was the first Attorney General in the newly created 18th Judicial District and was prominent in the prosecution of John T. Scopes in the historic and landmark 1925 Scopes Trial in Dayton. McKenzie’s uncle, the late Gordon McKenzie, a Rhea County judge for years, was a special attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. The McKenzie law firm is the oldest in existence in Rhea County, having been established in 1888 by Ben G. McKenzie.
In the past, McKenzie was cast in the role of his grandfather, Ben G. McKenzie, in the annual reenactment of the 1925 Scopes Trial, which is held annually at the Rhea County Courthouse during the Scopes Trial and Rhea Heritage Festival.
McKenzie is survived by his wife, Bobbie Williams McKenzie; daughter, Dana (Chris) Grissom and their children, Charles “Clint” and Brooke of McMinnville, Tenn.; daughter, Brittany (Barry) West and their daughter Ally West of Dayton; and daughter, Wendy (Dr. Stephen) Deloach and their children Haley, Taylor and Keely of Dickson, Tenn.