Local attorneys are speaking out against a proposed judicial redistricting plan that would take DeKalb County out of the current make up of the 13th Judicial District and make it part of a new eight county district, which would also include Macon, Trousdale, Smith, Jackson, Cannon, Warren, and Coffee counties.
For DeKalb, that would mean a different set of judges, District Attorney General, and District Public Defender from those that currently serve the county.
In a meeting with the local media Wednesday afternoon, several local attorneys expressed their displeasure with the proposal and plan to lobby state legislators to vote against it if presented to the general assembly.
"We (all local attorneys) are unanimous in our opposition to this, said General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Bratten Cook, II, who is president of the DeKalb County bar.
Judge Cook said judicial redistricting is not needed and a recent study authorized by the state legislature on statewide judicial redistricting drew the same conclusion. "To me, one of the important factors is the tax dollars that this is going to cost. It will cost millions of dollars. The state of Tennessee is not flush with our money and its our money that they're talking about spending. In fact, just four years ago they (state) spent some $250,000 to $300,000 and hired an independent company to make a study of redistricting the state. The summary of that study says ‘we don't need it'. There is nothing substantial or insubstantial that has changed in the last four years. Its ridiculous to say just because nothing (judicial redistricting) has happened since 1984, lets go in and make something happen. If its not broken, it doesn't need to be fixed," said Judge Cook
In 2007, the Tennessee Comptroller's Office awarded a contract to the Justice Management Institute and the Center for Justice, Law, and Society (CJLS) at George Mason University, to conduct a study of potential judicial redistricting in the state of Tennessee. The findings from the study were released in April, 2009. Based on the data collected for the study and an analysis of it, the report said "JMI does not recommend that judicial redistricting occur at this time".
According to the JMI report, "a review of relevant literature and state information found that in the states for which there was information on redistricting, the criteria were not actually used exclusively to assess district boundaries but rather to apportion judicial resources. These criteria included caseload per judge, weighted caseload, and population as the key factors used in other states to determine judicial boundaries. In lieu of criteria established by the state of Tennessee, JMI nonetheless used the criteria noted above to assess the boundaries of the judicial districts. Using these criteria, JMI found slight differences in a handful of districts, but none of significant magnitude to warrant redistricting. Additional information related to case processing times and pending caseloads were also examined and although differences were observed, changes in district boundaries are unlikely to address these differences. Moreover, the observed differences were again not of major significance," according to the JMI report.
"This report talks about the weighted case load that is one of the methods that Tennessee uses to determine where we need to put judicial resources. You cannot use population to say we need or don't need another judge," said Judge Cook, "It's the case load. So you can't go by population. But its my understanding that's kind of what they (state lawmakers) are wanting to do on redrawing the lines. Surely to goodness the legislature can spend our tax dollars better on education and other important issues than spending it on redrawing district lines for the judiciary when it doesn't need it," he said
As for the case load, attorney Hilton Conger said the judges in the 13th Judicial District manage it well. "If you look at the current thirty one judicial districts, the 13th Judicial District that we're in has the most counties. It may not be the largest populated district or the largest geographic district but it has the most counties of any. It has seven counties. No other district has seven counties in it. Our five judges in those counties say they're not overworked or under worked. They are disposing of cases as they should be disposed of. Who better knows (than the judges)? They (state lawmakers) give lip service by saying it (redistricting) is to get speedier trials so you won't have prisoners waiting in jail or litigants waiting. (They say) justice delayed is justice denied. I agree with that but I promise you that in our district, which has more counties than any in the state, you can get a trial on any kind of case, a jury trial or bench trial. If you really pushed for it and both sides cooperated, you could have a jury trial in less than six months. There is not a judge in our district that wouldn't accommodate you or find the time for it. All you have to do is come to our docket settings. The judges routinely ask the question at the beginning of the docket setting, does anybody have a case they want to get tried? They say I've got the time. You tell me," said Conger.
Frank Buck, longtime attorney and former State Representative, said he doesn't like the proposed new map in that it runs from such a long distance from Macon County, bordering Kentucky, down to Coffee County, not far from Alabama. He said that would create an undue burden of travel for many litigants. "The purpose of any judicial system is not for the benefit of the lawyers. Its not for the benefit of the judges. Its for the benefit of the public," said Buck. ‘When you look at this map (proposed new eight county district), if I were a lawyer in Tullahoma and I was getting some lady's child support (for her), I might have to go from within thirty miles of Alabama all the way within twenty miles of the Kentucky border if I were in Judge Wootten's court in Macon County. Judge Wootten is an excellent judge. Its not the judges, it's the geography that's crazy," said Buck.
Sarah Cripps said local attorneys would also face a lot of initial unpredictability with a different District Attorney General and new judges "To me the redistricting would inject so much unpredictability for the lawyers who are trying to render good representation for our clients. We have working relationships that are good with our district attorney, with our DCS attorneys, and with our judges. I'm not saying we can predict outcomes but when a client comes to you or if you're a mediator and you can talk with some sense of assuredness as to what a judge might do in a case or you know how the judge likes motions or certain things filed then that is important. All of this is going to be re-learning for everybody. It will be for me and I assume it will be for others if you're not familiar with a judge. We're not going to have relationships that we've built with the (current) District Attorney's Office, with the Public Defender's Office, with the Department of Children Services and their case managers and attorneys. We're not going to know (new) judge's preferences. To me that doesn't help anyone. Most of all it doesn't help our clients. That's what we're all about is trying to help our clients in the best way we can. This is going to thwart those efforts significantly. We have excellent judges in this district. From General Sessions and Juvenile Court to Circuit, Chancery to Criminal Court we are blessed with uniformly excellent judges. I want the district and the citizens of our county to continue to have that type of system to work for us," said Cripps.
Judge Cook added that many litigants might also be better served by judges already familiar with their case history. "So often you have people that come into court involving matters concerning their children and those cases continue on and on for years. You go in front of a judge, like Judge (Ronald) Thurman or Judge (John) Maddux. They are familiar with the case. They are familiar with what has happened over the years. If we end up getting stuck in another judicial district, then all of a sudden that new judge comes into court and the litigants come in and that judge knows nothing about the case. They've got a whole new learning curve. How is that fair to the litigants? That's who the system is for is them," said Judge Cook.
"What I look at is the overall economic affect on state and county resources," said attorney Jim Judkins. "For a deputy to have to transport a prisoner several counties for a hearing, that's going to cost the state or that county a whole lot more money. I don't really see it as the most efficient way to do business here in the district. I'm opposed to it. I think when you have the D.A., the Public Defender, and just about every judge around here saying we are opposed to it along with the lawyers, I think that speaks volumes about redistricting in this particular county," said Judkins.
"I'm with my fellow attorneys," said attorney Jeremy Trapp. I don't see any benefit this is going to create. I think it's a mistake. I go to a lot of different counties and practice law in front of a lot of different judges and I haven't met one that's for this or who can tell me how this is going to help things or make things better. So I'm opposed to it," said Trapp.
"We in the clerk's office, we're kind of the in between of all these lawyers, the D.A's office, and the Public Defender's office," said Circuit Court Clerk Katherine Pack. "We have a really good working relationship with all of them. Like everybody else, its going to be a learning process just to get this transitioned over to something else, it's just almost beyond what I could think of that we will have to do to accommodate this. I am opposed to it simply because I love working with our D.A.'s office. I love working with the attorneys. I love working with the Public Defender's office. I feel like we all have a good working relationship. I just hate to see that start from the ground and have to be worked up again," said Pack.
"As the newest attorney I haven't practiced in front of these Circuit and Criminal Court judges and Chancellor as much as everyone else here. But when I hear them (other attorneys) that have practiced in front of them for years on end say that everyone is unanimously against it, I can't think of one reason to be for it," said attorney Jon Slager. " Everyone is against it and they have said their reasons. They know much more about it than I do so I can't think of any reason to be for it," said Slager.
The 13th Judicial District is currently made up of Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam, and White Counties. The district has three trial courts including the Chancery, Circuit, and Criminal Courts and is served by Criminal Court Judges Leon Burns, Jr. and David Patterson, Circuit Court Judges John Maddux and Amy Hollars, and Chancellor Ronald Thurman. The District Attorney General is Randy York and the District Public Defender is David Brady. All these officials are either from Cookeville, Crossville or Livingston.
State Representative Mark Pody, during a visit to Smithville last Friday, said he believes the current system isn't working and that some changes should be made. "I'm going to tell you flat out that what we have isn't working," said Pody. "We've got thirty one districts and some of the wait times for example for a court case could be seventeen months depending on what district its in. I know cases where someone wants to get a divorce and they can't get a time to even get in front of a judge for over a year. That's just too long. Or if somebody commits a crime, if it takes over a year, that's not a speedy trial," he said.
"The (redistricting) map I have seen is going from thirty one districts down to twenty nine districts. I'm not comfortable reducing the number of districts. That doesn't make sense to me," said Pody. " But we have to redo it (redistricting) so it is more equitable across the state. There are some areas that seem to be working very well with no back load but there are areas where there is a big back load. My goal is to vote for what's best for the entire state and not what might be just best for where I am (my district). I have to look at this as a state issue and not just what's going to be best for our county. My vote has to be that way. I am going to be very open to the facts. For example, I want to know the case load and the average time for trial. I think that will make a difference in how its going to be divided up," said Representative Pody.
Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey said he wants the State Senate Judiciary Committee to examine judicial districting and ways the legal system can operate more efficiently and effectively. He noted that the last judicial redistricting occurred nearly 30 years ago in 1984.
"We desperately need to take a fresh look at this judicial map statewide to ensure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders," said Lt. Governor Ramsey.
(Third Photo from Top: Pictured left to right seated Hilton Conger, Mingy Bryant, and Sarah Cripps. Standing left to right- Mark Kent, Bratten Cook, II, Jeremy Parsley, Jim Judkins, Frank Buck, and Jon Slager)
Members of the local bar who have an active trial practice in the Thirteenth Judicial District and who are not pictured in the photograph are:
Tecia Puckett Pryor