Tennessee judge receives highest judicial honor for his work on the opioid epidemic

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Posted: 2019-11-26

Tennessee judge receives highest judicial honor for his work on the opioid epidemic

Joseph Slone stood out as soon as he walked through the metal detector and passed by the security guards at the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. last week. For one thing, at 9 years old, he was the youngest of the 250 or so invited guests, and then there’s the fact that he was the fastest moving guest, dashing by adults in dark suits and colorful dresses and around servers holding trays of hors d’oeuvres. His proud father, Judge Duane Slone, followed behind as best he could.

Not long after the reception ended, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. presented NCSC’s 2019 William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence to Duane Slone, a self-described “mountain person” from east Tennessee, for his ground-breaking work helping people with opioid use disorder. The Rehnquist Award honors a state court judge who demonstrates the qualities of judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, professional ethics, creativity, sound judgment, intellectual courage, and decisiveness.

Judge Slone works in the Circuit Court of Tennessee’s Fourth Judicial District, but he has a national reputation for identifying steps that courts should take to help defendants with opioid use disorder and for creating programs to help free them from their addiction. He also is known for being the judge who walks the walk. In 2011, he and his wife, Gretchen, adopted an infant son who was born suffering from withdrawals as a result of his birth mother’s opioid use. That child, Joseph, was given a standing ovation during his father’s acceptance speech.

Joseph was on the minds of many people during the award dinner. Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Jeffrey Bivins referred to Judge Slone’s adoption of Joseph, saying, “There is no better example of walking the walk.”

During his acceptance speech, Judge Slone referred a few times to how courts “must meet people where they are.” He has done that by creating or helping to create:

  • The Tennessee Recovery Oriented Compliance Strategy for people not eligible for drug courts. The program has led to a decrease in jail population, a reduction in property crimes, and an increase in healthy births, with approximately 90 percent of pregnant mothers maintaining custody of those children.
  • The Recovery Cabin, a shelter for women who suffer from opioid use disorder. More than 70 women – pregnant and non-pregnant -- have lived there and more than 20 healthy babies have been born to residents.
  • A partnership with the Tennessee Department of Health to educate people in jails and on probation about the dangers of utero drug exposure. The program is credited with reducing the number of newborns suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome by 60 percent in pilot counties. The initiative has been expanded to include education about the spread of infectious diseases associated with illegal drug use.

Judge Slone’s innovative work wasn’t lost on Chief Justice Roberts, who praised him for using ways other than incarceration to help opioid-addicted defendants. “Judge Slone is a living model of a judge who takes on big challenges, not obviously within the job.”