General Sessions Court judges revise rules after lawyers' challenge

General Sessions Court judges revise rules after lawyers' challenge

January 19th, 2014 by Todd South in Local Regional News

Christie Mahn Sell

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Document: General Sessions Court new rules of court

Document: Hamilton County local court rules

One word - "proposed" - could have helped local General Sessions Court judges avoid the backlash of a criminal defense attorneys' group.

The five sessions judges decided last year to put together what they say are long-standing practices and orders into one document and bring Hamilton County up to the same standards as other major Tennessee counties.

"We really were wanting to do something to help," said General Sessions Court Judge Christie Sell.

But you can bet that when lawyers put something in writing, people are going to argue.

"When I realized that there was discontent over the rules, the first thing I said was, 'I wish as a matter of courtesy we had published these for review,'" Sell said.

By putting the rules up with little notice, the judges drew the scrutiny of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The group has written a letter voicing concern over what members see as rules that could violate rights for both the prosecution and the defense in criminal cases.

Local rules are standard in most courts. They set out when certain dockets are held, the procedures lawyers and members of the public must follow and general operation and conduct of the court, even to such decorous decisions as dress codes.

"Everyone shall remove hats, overcoats, raincoats and sunglasses before entering the courtroom," one item in the original rules states.

The proposed rules have been revised to allow the wearing of overcoats.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court has had the same basic rules in place since 1966, Judge Clarence Shattuck said.

Many things have changed since then, Shattuck said. There are domestic violence dockets and mental health dockets that didn't exist at that time. Cellphones with recording capabilities and cameras are a new technology that must be considered.

Hank Hill, a local criminal defense attorney and long-standing member of the defense attorneys' group, said the local rules that took effect Jan. 1 violate Tennessee Supreme Court procedure.

State Supreme Court rule 18 requires a 30-day advance notice before adopting local rules, in which time judges are to seek input from the public and attorneys.

The same paragraph states a judicial district may adopt local rules that "apply only to the circuit, chancery, criminal, or similiar trial court divisions within the district."

Hill said trials are held in sessions court and so this rule should cover how local judges create and adopt local rules.

But Sell said Friday that the judges had checked with the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts and the rules to which Hill refers do not cover sessions courts.

Michele Wojciechowski, AOC spokeswoman, said Friday that sessions courts are not commonly referred to as trial courts, but she deferred a legal opinion to the office's general counsel, who was not available for comment Friday evening.

Sell and Shattuck said the rules have been revised and the effective date moved to March to allow open discussion, revision and input from attorneys before putting the rules in their final form.

The first version of the rules borrowed a phrase from the Knox County court rules, which prohibit a non-Tennessee resident from practicing law in the courtroom.

Sell admitted that was a mistake.

Other potential errors that Hill and his fellow defense attorneys have referenced have either been fixed or will be before the rules become official.

Both judges said the rules are there as guidelines, mainly for out-of-town attorneys new to the court or people representing themselves without an attorney.

"It was never intended to impose new rules," Sell said. "Merely putting in one body the rules that are in place."

Hill said he would like to see an open meeting including civil and criminal practice attorneys, with both prosecution and defense representatives and the judges to review the proposed rules before they become official.

Sell and Shattuck both said they would be open to such a meeting.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP