Hamilton County courtroom security stirs debate

Hamilton County courtroom security stirs debate

January 3rd, 2013 by Kate Belz in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Commissioners during a commission meeting in this file photo.

Hamilton County Commissioners during a commission meeting in...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


The Hamilton County Commission voted to confirm the reappointment of five members to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Health Council:

* Jim Coleman

* Cyrus Huffman

* Sean Richards

* Manny Rico

* Howard Roddy

Source: Hamilton County Commission


Despite being embroiled in a lawsuit for holding prayers in Jesus' name before Hamilton County Commission meetings, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor personally offered the invocation before Wednesday's County Commission meeting, closing in Jesus' name.

Taylor was named in the lawsuit filed by Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones in June. In the lawsuit's complaint, Coleman and Jones criticized Taylor for offering an invocation in Jesus' name immediately after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter asking the commission to stop the legislative prayers.

Coleman and Jones have contended that the county has violated their rights laid out in the First Amendment Establishment Clause by "endorsing" Christianity during invocations.

They have requested the time be replaced with a moment of silence.

Taylor, who is a minister, conducted the invocation in place of another pastor who could not make Wednesday's meeting.

A meeting that was expected to be brief turned into a lengthy dispute among Hamilton County commissioners as they debated whether to spend $8,000 on renovations for a courtroom.

Last week, Commissioner Warren Mackey presented members of the Finance Committee with a request from several local judges wanting to bolster security in a jury room-turned courtroom for civil cases.

Mackey visited the courtroom before recommending that money be set aside for simple renovations to the room, raising the judge's bench and installing bulletproof plating.

But as the matter went to a vote during Wednesday's commission meeting, Commissioner Jim Fields announced that he, Commissioner Joe Graham and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger visited the courtroom on Friday and discussed an alternative.

Fields, an attorney, suggested switching the civil courtroom with a third-floor jury assembly room, where Criminal Court is conducted. The room already has the desired security measures in place, he said.

"I talked with a couple of the judges, and they were fine either way," added Graham, who said more time to study the issue would be "prudent."

Mackey and Commissioner Greg Beck, who is a court officer in the building, voiced offense that Fields and Graham seemingly took the matter into their own hands without informing the entire committee of their actions.

"We come into this meeting and actions have been taken; conversations have been held," Mackey said. "It would have been nice to have been brought into that loop if people were planning to do something else."

Fields defended his and Graham's actions, saying, "I don't know of any requirement that a commissioner has to form a committee to go look at something on their own."

Coppinger also tried to "set the record straight" about his involvement with the tour, saying his interest was in the financial aspect of potential renovations.

Commissioners voted 5-3 to spend more time studying the issue, with Mackey, Beck and Commissioner Marty Haynes voting against the delay. Beck then reluctantly agreed to review the new options with the Building Committee, which he heads.

"If you have other commissioners who are going to do the job of the building and grounds people, there's no need to go back to the buildings and grounds people," Beck jabbed.

General Sessions Judge Christine Mahn Sell said she didn't even know using the third-floor jury room was an option until earlier this week.

"I don't have a problem with it. It has all the exact safety mechanisms we need," she said. "My one hesitation is that it could add to the confusion people already have when they come into the courthouse and different courts share the same floor. I also don't know how it may impact Criminal Court."

Sell emphasized that her and other judges' main concern was safety in the room.

"Civil court is much less civil," she said.

During announcements at the end of the meeting, both Graham and Fields said they had not meant to offend other commissioners or "cross the line" by surveying the courthouse.

"There's a thing called respect," replied Mackey. "To be sandbagged ... is not what we want to do here."