published Monday, April 8th, 2013

Judicial redistricting plan raises concerns

District attorneys, public defenders and a few legislators in a local area that will be heavily affected by a proposed judicial redistricting plan say changes are not needed. Many question Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's motives.

"This is not about courts; it's about politics," said 31st District Public Defender Dan Bryant. "If something's not broke, why do you have to fix it?"

In 2009 the state commissioned an outside study to see if redistricting was needed. The report concluded it was unnecessary.

What's changed since the report, Bryant said, is the makeup of the General Assembly.

"Something has changed," he said. "The Republicans have a super majority."

Under Ramsey's proposal, Bryant's district of Warren and Van Buren counties will merge with Coffee and Cannon counties to form the 14th Judicial District.

Currently, Coffee is a stand-alone district and Cannon is part of a two-county district with Rutherford County. Under the new plan, Rutherford, which has had the largest population increase since the last district lines were drawn in 1984, will be a one-county district.

Ramsey's original plan called for a statewide reworking of all 31 districts, but political negotiations led to a compromise that would reduce the number from 31 to 29. The lieutenant governor claims the new plan will save $600,000 annually.

Ramsey's office did not return multiple messages seeking comment last week.

But state Rep. Charles Curtiss, D-Sparta, whose legislative district includes Warren County, finds Ramsey's logic difficult to understand.

"What interests me is right now we're looking at charter schools and vouchers because 'smaller is better,'" he said.

Some districts will get larger, causing delayed hearings and reduced services, he said.

"Politics should have no play in our justice system," Curtiss said.

Even some of Ramsey's fellow Republicans oppose the proposed changes.

Rep. Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, has both Coffee and Warren counties in his legislative district. He said none of the court's personnel he's spoken to support the potential change.

He credited the districts in his area as being close to their constituents and creating cost savings with high levels of child support collection. Matheny worries that changes could alter some of the system's good work.

"I hate to see us lose that; however, I am a realist and know there are some major changes coming down the pipe," Matheny said.

The legislator said he'd like to see some changes to the current plan, including boundaries redrawn every 16 to 24 years instead of every decade. A "due diligence" assessment would be required, starting four years before the deadline so elected officials and courts would know what's heading their way.

Matheny also said he'd like to see the legislature make all judicial elections -- judges, public defenders and district attorneys -- nonpartisan. This, he said, would help remove politics from the process.

"I think the partisan environment is toxic," Matheny said.

The terms of office for judges, public defenders and district attorneys in Tennessee is eight years. The next election is in 2014.

District Public Defender Gerald Melton has held the job in District 16, which contains Rutherford and Cannon counties, since the office was created in 1989.

He lives in Cannon County and plans to move to Rutherford and run for re-election in the one-county district if the plan is approved.

District Attorneys Lisa Zavogiannis and Mickey Lane would be running against each other next year for the newly created District 14.

Zavogiannis is finishing her first term as district attorney for Warren and Van Buren counties. Lane has headed the Coffee County office since 1990.

The details of staffing have not been set.

But Zavogiannis said she understands that the new district of four counties will retain the three assistant district attorneys from each existing district with one district attorney and add Cannon County with no additional attorney from that area.

Much of the district attorney offices funding comes through the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, and if caseloads show that the new district needs more staff, that could have a ripple effect on other areas, she said.

Both the Tennessee House and Senate bills are scheduled for review in their respective finance committees or subcommittees this week. Most of those interviewed, including legislators, said the bills are likely to pass.

None of the representatives or senators whose areas could be affected by the proposed changes are on the judicial committees or subcommittees that dealt with the bill in its early stages.

Matheny said that was "pure coincidence."

"It's just bad luck for those who are going to be affected," Matheny said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at 423-757-6347 or tsouth@timesfreepress.com.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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