Ordering the court?
Second sessions court becoming an issue

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com
With an ever-expanding of defendants coming through the court system, the notion of establishing a second Carter County General Sessions Court complete with a new judge is blowing in the breeze of City of Elizabethton and county governments.
"We are growing every day," says General Sessions Court Judge John Walton, who hears up to 750 cases per week just on his court's three criminal hearing days. Walton said some informal discussion about a second sessions court had taken place, but nothing had been formally discussed.
A second sessions court and judgeship would have to be created through a private act by the Legislature with an open election held for the office, explains Walton. City and county officials aren't speculating on how a second General Sessions Court judge and docket might affect the operation or existence of Elizabethton's Municipal Court.
City Manager Charles Stahl also says the creation of another sessions judge and court had been mentioned informally, but was essentially in limbo until the county government made a gesture to effect a second sessions court. Stahl said last week transference of city court cases or the abolition of municipal court in its current form had not been discussed by city administration or City Council.
"It is such a complicated issue that until the county comes forward and indicates a desire to explore adding a second sessions court judge, you really can't speak to it," says Stahl.
General Sessions Court is the first stop for defendants charged with criminal offenses ranging from DUI to first-degree murder. Walton hears criminal cases on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. The criminal docket frequently ranges from 200 to 250 cases each day. On Thursdays, he holds juvenile court and says he uses Wednesday for extended preliminary hearings and actions. City Judge Lewis Merryman hears on average of 300 to 350 cases each month in City Court, which typically meets Monday and Thursday at Elizabethton City Hall.
Citations issued by police sometimes summon defendants into sessions court for one violation and City Court on a separate violation. For example, state law requires a citation for the charge of violation of financial responsibility be ticketed into a general sessions court. In some cases, police may issue a citation to a motorist for speeding and the financial responsibility violation. The speeding citation moves into city court, but the financial responsibility citation falls into sessions court. Walton said the offenders frequently paid their speeding tickets in municipal court and thought that completely satisfied their civil penalty.
"I've had people say 'I went to city court and thought I'd done everything' on their fine," said Walton, who is Elizabethton's former city attorney. "I'll set aside the (failure to appear) judgment because it is a believable reason that they got confused."
Transferring city court cases into a second sessions court would mean an increase in caseload for Circuit Court Clerk office. Circuit Court Clerk John Paul Mathes says he did not believe a second court would require an increase in office staff to handle the new cases.
"I think I could probably still handle the full load," says Mathes, whose office handles general sessions, criminal and juvenile court documents and itinerary for Carter County. "It's all in a day's work."
While a second sessions court judge could disperse the growing criminal workload, finding space for another active court presents an additional problem. The two courtrooms at the Carter County Justice Center host sessions court and Criminal Court proceedings. Civil cases are heard at the courtroom of the Carter County Courthouse.
"That's all of the courtrooms," said Mathes. Another sessions court would also require more officers of the Carter County Sheriff's Department to provide security.
Mathes said a potential answer could be using the council chambers of Elizabethton City Hall provided the county and city agreed on such an accommodation.
Two-thirds of Tennessee's cities are chartered under private acts, and a large percentage of those charters grant the municipal court concurrent jurisdiction with General Sessions Courts and provide for an appointed judge. State law authorizes municipalities to provide for the election of municipal court judges. However, state law does not grant municipal court judges concurrent jurisdiction with General Sessions Courts. Such jurisdiction must be found in each city's charter. Elizabethton's city charter does not provide for the abolition of city court and does not grant Merryman equal judicial power to Walton.
Another issue is money collected by the city and county through offense fines and court costs assessed to defendants. According to Elizabethton Director of Finance Brad Moffitt, police fines paid through the city court totaled roughly $218,000 for the 2002-2003 fiscal year. If city court merged into a second sessions court, those city revenues would be divided back to the state.
Court costs issued in each case are collected by the county government, which remits a portion of those dollars to the state. When the court levies a fine against a defendant, a small amount of the fine goes back to the agency that brought charges such as the EPD, Carter County Sheriff's Department, Tennessee Highway Patrol and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Merryman's salary for the last budget year was $13,665.
According to state statute, chancellors, circuit court judges, criminal court judges and law and equity judges receive an annual base salary of $78,000. State appellate court judges and supreme court justices receive additional compensation. Since Walton is a county employee, the county government would have to pay a second judge's salary.
Elizabethton Police Chief Roger Deal said during his law enforcement career, he had watched the sessions court case load grow from a half-day affair in the mid-1970s to 10-12 hour days for Walton.
"I think this county has a large enough load of cases going through sessions court to support a second sessions judge," said Deal.
Approximately 300 citations issued by Elizabethton police officers are placed on the City Court docket each month. The majority of police-issued citations -- primarily moving and parking violations -- are paid by defendants while some cases are heard before Merryman.
"I could see the merger of our case load going to sessions court," Deal said. "The whole judicial system has to adjust when the need arises -- and the need is there."