The Hamilton County judge who refused to grant a Signal Mountain couple's divorce petition last month because of the U.S. Supreme Court's gay marriage decision changed his mind Friday afternoon, according to a court order.
Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton's order stated "that the parties receive a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences."
And in a handwritten edit on the order, though, Atherton vacated his Aug. 31 ruling that Tennessee courts could not hear contested divorces because the Supreme Court ruling invalidated their jurisdiction — a ruling that has puzzled the legal community in Chattanooga and beyond.
His reasoning, according to the note, was that "said holding [of Aug. 31] may be interpreted as intruding upon the exclusive province of the Tennessee legislature."
Earlier this month, Atherton made headlines when he rejected the divorce petition of Thomas and Pamela Bumgardner, a couple in their 60s who have no children together. Although Atherton listed many reasons, he raised several eyebrows when he said the Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage derailed state courts from handling divorce litigation.
Since that time, Atherton has refused to elaborate on his reasoning, prompting some activists and officials to deride the order as political theater.
After weeks of speculation, Atherton agreed to hear arguments Sept. 28 in Chancery Court to re-evaluate whether his initial conclusion "should be altered or amended," according to an order he filed. It wasn't clear Saturday whether that hearing would still take place after he granted the Bumgardners' divorce.
But just the notice of the hearing caught the legal community off guard.
"I don't think I've ever seen a case where a court sets a hearing for the parties to debate what the court has already decided," Rockwood, Tenn., attorney Mark Foster said Friday. Foster dealt with a case in which a gay couple struggled to get divorced in Tennessee — until the Supreme Court decision.
"It is fairly unusual for a court to step up and reopen the matter on its own," added Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association.
When a Times Free Press reporter visited Atherton's office late Friday morning, a secretary shut the door and said, "He is not going to address the press right now with matters pending in his court."
Just minutes before court ended that afternoon, though, Atherton granted the Bumgardners a divorce after the couple presented an agreement eliminating their contested status, Pamela O'Dwyer, one of the attorneys in the case, said Saturday.
The legal community remains in flux over the future of divorces in Hamilton County.
"What Chancellor Atherton has indicated is, if the parties cannot agree who's at fault, he cannot grant the divorce," said family law attorney Catherine White.
One of White's clients was slated to be part of Atherton's first contested divorce case since the initial Bumgardner decision. But the hearing got delayed because she and Ryan Fetters, the other attorney in the case, were not ready, she said.
Atherton granted another divorce earlier last week, to a different couple, records show.
Some local lawyers speculated that couples have been undergoing intense mediation to settle lest they become another lab experiment in Atherton's courtroom.
"That scenario seems likely to happen," said Randy Larramore, who works in the same practice as O'Dwyer.
A large part of the problem for couples is, until divorces are granted, White said, "you can't divide the assets and the debt. And then you're stuck."
A strange upside? Atherton's order could inspire eager-to-divorce couples to quickly resolve their issues.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow @zackpeterson918.
Staff writer Evan Hoopfer contributed to this story.