Whether helping his team win on the football field, representing his clients in the courtroom, or striving to improve the lives of Knox County youths from the bench, Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin has always shown dedication to goals bigger than himself. In his newest role, as president of the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Judge Irwin is eager once again to put his knowledge, skills, and experience to work for others.
“I’m honored that I’ve been given this opportunity,” Judge Irwin said. “As president I will advocate for all juvenile court judges and magistrates across the state. That means making sure we are heard in the legislative process if we need to be, making sure we understand what the new laws are, and trying to anticipate how any changes will affect children.”
Judge Irwin’s passion for juvenile justice comes from a deep place. He felt called to the law and then to the juvenile court bench after years spent in a position most people can only dream of.
Football Aspirations and Success
It all started in Knoxville where Judge Irwin grew up an athletic child who excelled in football at Central High School. He went on to attend the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he played football and majored in political science.
As good as he was at his chosen sport, Judge Irwin said that for most of his time in college he did not see professional football as a likely career option. Instead, he was interested in the law.
“I always prepared myself to try and go to law school, and I didn’t want to lose that opportunity because I was playing football,” Judge Irwin said.
After his junior year in college, it began to be more evident that Judge Irwin had a shot at the NFL. Although already accepted into law school when he graduated, Judge Irwin instead joined the Minnesota Vikings after having been drafted in the third round.
What followed was a long and successful career as an offensive tackle. Beginning in 1982, Judge Irwin started 181 consecutive games for the Vikings, a formidable, steady presence on the line.
While his football career thrived, Judge Irwin never gave up his aspiration to join the legal profession. Starting in 1985, Judge Irwin began attending night classes at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, while still maintaining his NFL career. He later transferred to the University of Tennessee College of Law, where he earned his juris doctor in 1990.
That same year, Judge Irwin began practicing law in the off season. He focused on a variety of different types of cases, including sports-related work representing other NFL players. In 1994, he retired from the NFL and focused on his legal work fulltime.
Finding His Place in the Law
During his time in private practice, one particular area of the law began to really make an impact on him.
“As an attorney I ended up getting some cases in juvenile court, mostly delinquent cases,” Judge Irwin said. “And I quickly became aware of how important the work was.”
He was impressed by the way juvenile court judges and other court workers “had the chance to steer kids in the right direction early on.”
“I became fascinated by that,” Judge Irwin said. “I thought if I ever had the chance to go for that career, it would be really fulfilling.”
In 2005, that chance came up after longtime Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Carey Garrett passed away. Judge Irwin was appointed to succeed him that year, and then was elected to a full term on the court in 2006.
Right away, he knew leaving his private practice for the bench was the right decision. In the latter part of his legal career, he had begun to feel unfulfilled by some aspects of the job. Even when he won certain cases, he wondered if he had really accomplished something good.
“I needed a little more,” he said.
Judge Irwin found it in juvenile court, where day in and day out he saw opportunity after opportunity to help children and their families.
“Every day when I walk in the courtroom, I think how I have the chance to make the lives of some children better by my actions,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve always approached it. Everything we do down here is in the best interest of the child. In delinquent cases, we look at rehabilitation not punishment. When we’re dealing with family services cases, we’re looking at getting those children the best outcome they can have. I like that philosophy, and I like that work.”
Working with the TCJFCJ
Since the beginning of his judicial career, an integral part of that work has been the TCJFCJ. Judge Irwin has been on its Executive Committee for 10 years and said that the group has always been a great source of information.
“It’s a great place to exchange ideas and find out what’s working in other places,” he said. “We study the right way to do things, and I think the educational component is very, very crucial. It was my chief source of learning how to do things right.”
Judge Irwin takes over from Henry County General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Vicki Snyder as president of the TCJFCJ. He said she has done an exceptional job in the position, especially during this difficult year.
“Vicki has worked very hard and very passionately for all the judges in the state,” Jude Irwin said. “She’s a good person and an excellent jurist, and she took on this job and worked at it very hard. She’s a good communicator. She’s always respectful of others and their view points and really was a steady hand on the helm when this unexpected pandemic occurred. I was glad she was in that spot, and I will have to work really hard to fill those shoes.”
Off the Bench
Outside of his judicial duties, Judge Irwin has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs in Tennessee. Judge Irwin was a member of the Boys Club of Knoxville as a kid and has supported it wholeheartedly throughout his life. Judge Irwin has been on the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs for 21 years and sees the clubs as a crucial organization for children.
“I believe the work of the Boys & Girls Clubs and other agencies like them are one of the reasons why our delinquent numbers and our unruly numbers are so low in Knox County compared to some other metro areas in the state and in the country,” he said. “I’m real proud of that work. I think if you can match a kid with a person who cares passionately for that child, who’s going to be there for them no matter what it can be extremely valuable.”
As far as hobbies are concerned, for 20 years Judge Irwin sang and played rhythm guitar for The Chillbillies, a band specializing in “rhythm, boogie, and blues.” He still fills in occasionally as needed for the band.
“We had a lot of fun with it,” he said. “It’s a good release.”
His favorite pastime, though, is fishing, for bass and crappie primarily. Judge Irwin estimates he goes fishing 100 times a year, after work, on weekends, whenever he gets the chance.
By his side throughout everything has been his wife, Sharon. Judge Irwin and Sharon married in 1982 and have three grown children: Mallory, Conor, and Logan. They also have two grandchildren, Charlie and Jack.
“I love being a dad, and I love being a granddad,” Judge Irwin said.
Judge Irwin does not have any overarching agenda he wants to pursue as president. Instead, he just wants judges to focus on the essentials.
“I’d just like for us all to get better at what we do,” he said. “I don’t know that we need any changes in the law right now. We’ve just had juvenile justice reform. We’ve made our way through all of it. I would just like to see us back in business full time, putting coronavirus behind us, and looking after kids.”
That does not mean that Judge Irwin does not see some areas that could use improvement. He would like to see more resources available for those struggling with mental health issues or substance use disorders. And, he also believes it is critically important that more people volunteer to become foster parents.
“We need more good, viable, safe foster homes,” he said.
Overall, Judge Irwin can think of no other place he would rather be right now than a juvenile judge leading his profession’s statewide organization. It is another positive progression in a life that has seen many of them.
“I’ve been very lucky to have three different careers that I’ve loved,” he said. “I loved my football playing days. I loved practicing law, and I love being a judge. I wouldn’t trade the job I have now for any of the others. I feel like every day when I come to work that a kid’s life is going to be made better by the work I get to do. I’m very blessed.”