Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell From left, defense attorney Brian O'Shaughnessy, Assistant District Attorney Rodney Strong and Assistant District Attorney Lila Statom prepare cases before Judge Christie Mahn Sell comes on the bench in General Sessions Court.
As prosecutors scurry to complete plea agreements and set hearing dates for the last of the hundreds of criminal cases heard during the week, Judge Bob Moon complains that his staff is exhausted and already 10 minutes past the court’s normal noon closing time.
“I’m ready to close this show down,” Judge Moon tells the remaining attorneys, prosecutors and police officers in Hamilton County General Sessions Court.
Five minutes later at 12:15 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Judge Moon slams down his gavel to end a week of activity in the county’s busiest court.
The five General Sessions Court judges handled more than 3,000 criminal charges, civil disputes and other orders during the week ended Oct. 2.
But the average General Sessions judge was on the bench disposing of those cases for fewer than 14 hours, or under three hours a day, according to a Chattanooga Times Free Press review of the judges’ week.
Down the hall in Chattanooga City Court, the bench time for each of the two city judges also averaged fewer than 3 hours a day to dispose of more than 1,400 traffic tickets and city code violations. Only one city judgesheld court on Friday that week.
As the entryway into the judicial system for everyone from traffic violators to killers, the lower court judges handle far more cases than other local, state or federal judges. With such a heavy caseload, judges in General Sessions and City courts say they also must handle a lot of paperwork, orders and administrative duties outside their actual time in court.
“To just judge our jobs by the time we spend on the bench is improper,” said Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck, the county’s longest-serving judge. He spent the most time of any judge on the bench during the week that was reviewed.
“We never know what it’s going to be at the beginning of the day. So much of what we have to deal with comes up without any notice,” Judge Shattuck said.
Still, one General Sessions judge — Ronald Durby — said the job “isn’t that hard” and rarely requires excessive labor off the bench.
“It beats the heck out of shoveling coal dust in Walker County, Alabama,” joked Judge Durby, comparing his current gig with the one he had as a young man.
Judge Durby even said he “doesn’t do a whole lot” on Friday afternoons, the time of week when no courts are in session and judges usually have left early to start the weekend.
too many bodies?
Some city and county officials are questioning whether the courts are as efficient as they could be.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who is pushing to consolidate more city and county services, wants to revive his idea of merging City Court and General Sessions Court as a way to operate the system with fewer judges.
“Judges don’t like for nonjudges to decide how their jobs should be handled,” Mr. Littlefield said. “But I do believe there could be some efficiencies there.”
Hamilton County Commissioner Larry Henry, chairman of the county’s Security and Corrections Committee, also questions whether so many lower court judges are needed.
“I think we need to look at it again and see if there really is a need for the fifth (General Sessions Court judge) to be there,” Mr. Henry said.
The county has added two judges and four judicial commissioners in the past 13 years.
In 2005, Mr. Henry questioned the need for five General Sessions Court judges when one of the judgeships was vacant. At the urging of the court, the county kept all five.
Unlike courts of record, municipal and General Sessions courts have limited jurisdiction. Most cases are handled quickly, and there are few actual trials.
City Court handles primarily traffic tickets and violations of city ordinances. It handed over criminal cases to the county courts a decade ago.
General Sessions Court can try civil disputes up to $25,000, but most of the criminal caseload involves accepting plea agreements for misdemeanor crimes and reviewing probation violations, records show.
City and county leaders said they expected judges would spend more time in court each week than what the Times Free Press found during a week of monitoring activity in General Sessions and Chattanooga City Court.
In the week from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2, the latest any General Sessions Court was in session was 3:49 p.m.
In the afternoon City Court that begins after 3 p.m., the cases were finished on most days by 6:15 p.m., even with breaks between afternoon sessions.
None of the seven judges on the second floor of the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building conducts court on Friday afternoons, weekends or holidays. The four county magistrates set bonds and respond to warrant requests at night and on weekends.
A performance review of Chattanooga’s City Court six years ago concluded that the caseload did not warrant two full-time city judges and that Chattanooga’s judges were paid more than comparable judges elsewhere in Tennessee.
“Instead of two full-time judges, the City Court docket can be handled by two part-time judges,” then-City Finance Director David Eichenthal said in his 2003 study.
Since then, the pay for city judges is up 34 percent and the weekly caseload is up 19 percent, records show.
Costs to operate courts here increased this year when the judges, whose salaries are tied to a state cost-of-living formula, got a 3.8 percent raise, while most county and state workers got no increase.
The judicial pay raises in July boosted the annual salary for City and General Sessions judges to $154,320. The county also pays a total of $371,872 for the four judicial commissioners who help the General Sessions judges.
City and General Sessions judges insist they all are needed to handle a growing caseload and to help settle cases outside the more costly courts of record, including Criminal, Chancery and Circuit courts in Hamilton County.
The General Sessions Court judges released a list of 50 duties and tasks they perform outside the courtroom, ranging from granting search warrants to approving all payments to attorneys and court interpreters.
“You’ve got probably more going on off the bench than you do on the bench,” Judge Moon said. “The mind could not tolerate 40 hours of General Sessions Court bench time. You would be going to Moccasin Bend (mental health institute) with some of those that you send.”
Judge Moon said if the county tries to reduce the number of General Sessions Court judges, he’ll quit. He said some morning dockets are so full that the defendants, family members and attorneys in court exceed the capacity of the courtroom.
On other days, judges say, they must be available for plea agreements, preliminary hearings to approve warrants, payments and other orders.
“Our schedules are just very unpredictable, and it’s not like any 8-to-5 office environment,” Judge Christie Sell said. “People have a right to a trial, and you can’t badger people into a plea agreement or limit any of their rights just to move the docket along.”
Judge David Bales said judges also must read court cases and new laws to keep current in their jobs.
“There is a lot of preparation time before you sit on the bench,” he said.
But unlike federal and state criminal courts, no in-depth legal research is involved in decisions and no written opinions are issued.
In their chambers in Chattanooga’s City Court, Judges Sherry Paty and Russell Bean both point to stacks of letters, tickets and parking violations they must deal with outside of court each day.
“Your job doesn’t just consist of hearing cases in the courtroom,” Judge Paty said. “There is a lot of paperwork we have to review and sign off the bench.”
Judge Bean said the city collects more than $3 million a year in fees and fines associated with the City Court.
“For an operation with such revenues, I think our pay and performance is certainly justified,” he said.