Mayor urges study of court consolidation

Mayor urges study of court consolidation

October 18th, 2009 by Monica Mercer in News

Before 1993, criminal cases in Hamilton County were heard in both Chattanooga City Court and the county's General Sessions Court.

Mayor Ron Littlefield thinks it might be time to return to such an approach by combining the City Court and General Sessions Court and their clerks' offices.

"It's not just a matter of money," he said. "It's a matter of efficiency and not confusing the public about where their needs are handled."

The lower courts share the second floor of the Hamilton County Justice Building. But they split their functions 16 years ago.

When the City Council gave City Court judges a midterm raise in 1992 to match their county counterparts, the state attorney general called foul.

In 1993, the attorney general said and a criminal court judge ruled that the 1992 raise granted to the City Court judges violated the constitutional ban on changing the pay of a state judge during his or her term. As a result, the City Court judges could only operate as municipal courts, hearing only traffic and city ordinance violations. The criminal caseload from the City Court, which previously accounted for a majority of the court's workload, shifted to the Hamilton County General Sessions Court.

After a legislative fight over whether the new judges should be elected on a partisan basis or not, the Hamilton County Commission finally agreed to add two more judges elected without party affiliation in 1999.

Both City Court judgeships were maintained despite the drop in their workloads.

Mr. Littlefield said that combining the General Sessions and City courts and their clerk offices could streamline overall operations and, if negotiated properly, save money for the city and county taxpayers.

Merging the City Court with the General Sessions Court also would allow the penalties for city ordinance and traffic violations in Chattanooga to be raised above the constitutionally set limit on municipal fines of $50 .

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said he is open to studying consolidation of court services, although he cautioned that any changes will take years to implement because of the terms of elected officials.

Laura Click, public information officer for the Tennessee Supreme Court, said neither judicial terms of office nor pay can be cut during an elected term.

No consolidation could take place before the current eight-year terms of the City Court and General Sessions Court judges end in 2014.

"It will take years to make any major changes," Mayor Littlefield said. "You can't shorten an elected term. But I think it's time we begin the study and discussions to see what opportunities for savings are out there."