New court policy stirs debate

New court policy stirs debate

December 3rd, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

A Hamilton County commissioner is questioning a recent decision by city judges and county General Sessions judges to restrict access to the back halls of their courtrooms, where both prosecutors and defense attorneys are used to conducting business.

"My question is when did the Judges take over the County Buildings, and what authority have they been given to make this decision?" County Commissioner John Brooks wrote in a Nov. 25 letter to all General Sessions and City Court judges.

A joint statement issued Wednesday by the judges attempted to explain the action.

The judges cited safety concerns and the wish to avoid the appearance of impropriety when lawyers are allowed to walk freely in the back halls. Everyone except judges, administrative staff, bailiffs and court officers now is prohibited from using the back halls of the city and general sessions courts on the second floor of the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building.

"We believe that attorneys and law enforcement officers who come out of the back door of the courtroom from our chambers at the same time that we take the bench often gives the appearance that the judges, attorneys and officers have been discussing cases" behind closed doors, General Sessions Judge David Bales said in the written statement.

The Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers plans to discuss the new policy at its monthly meeting tonight, but most are not happy with the rule. No such rule exists in the higher Criminal Court on the third floor of the same building, where serious felony charges such as murder and rape are prosecuted on a regular basis.

Defense attorney Hank Hill called the policy "an attempt to correct a problem that does not appear to exist."

Mr. Hill also questioned the judges' motives for the policy, calling any attempts to avoid the appearance of impropriety "a bunch of bologna."

"It is absurd that members of the bar should not have collegial associations with judges," Mr. Hill said. "It casts a sense of paranoia on the general public that lawyers and judges are not trustworthy."