Leave City Court where it is

Leave City Court where it is

February 5th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Mayor Ron Littlefield's proposal to move the City Court operations from the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building to the old Tennessee American Water Co. building near City Hall has needlessly stirred a tempest in a teapot. We have to wonder why he raised the idea.

The mayor claims - but hasn't yet revealed hard figures - that the move could save upwards of $50,000 a year. The two City Court judges, Russell Bean and Sherry Paty, dispute that. Given the complexities of the move, and the need for a relatively large courtroom and space for a city court clerk's staff of 27, meaningful savings would be hard to achieve.

Bean, moreover, contends the mayor has a more devious motive - retaliation against Paty for a ruling that went against the city's interest in the McKamey Animal Shelter lawsuit against a local Pet Company store. Though the mayor's critics would be apt to believe that, the mayor denies it.

Vengeance aside, there is ample reason to leave the City Court operation where it is.

Space, security, efficiency

Its placement in the Courts Building works well and offers ample courtroom space, which is more than can be said of the old water company building. Use of the city-county facility, which houses the courtrooms of the five General Sessions Court judges plus City Court, and the three state Criminal Court judges, also allows City Court the benefit of the Courts Building security checks. And it provides easy access - on the rare occasion it may be needed - to bring prisoners into the courtroom from the adjacent county jail.

More importantly, it permits valuable flexibility for city police officers to move between City Court, where they handle minor traffic violations on city tickets and city code and ordinance violations, and Sessions Court, which has jurisdiction over DUI's, drug offenses and misdemeanor charges that often stem from traffic stops.

That convenient flexibility - both courts are on the same floor - has become more important since the city forfeited its constitutional court status some years ago by giving former City Court Judge Walter Williams a mid-term pay increase. That's forbidden for judges with jurisdiction over state laws, and it means City Court judges now cannot handle DUI's and other misdemeanors and felony crimes.

Since Chattanooga's police officers must therefore regularly appear in General Sessions and City courts, it is clearly is in the city's financial interest to make it possible for police officers to schedule their courtroom hours efficiently to keep down court time and overtime pay.

It's interesting that Littlefield has interjected the City Court's limited jurisdiction - he called the court a "toothless tiger" - into the argument. He also suggested that the city might want to dissolve its City Court and turn its ordinance and code offenders over to Sessions Court.

Given City Court's jurisdictional limitations, it would be worth considering whether two judges are actually needed. But abolishing the court entirely might shortchange the city's code enforcement needs.

In any case, that's easier said than done. Even the mayor admits that it might require a vote to amend the city's charter. And if it were proposed, General Sessions Court judges would likely lobby against taking on jurisdiction for municipal ordinances.

Moreover, there's a work ethic issue in any change. Like the City Court judges who split the morning and late afternoon sessions of their court, the General Sessions Court judges - though they all get the same salary as full-time state trial court judges - also hold jobs that are considerably less than full time. The minimal hours and short work days that judges in both courts work remain the stuff of local legend among lawyers and court watchers.

The city, of course, could seek to restore its court's jurisdiction over state laws and misdemeanors, since its judges' pay is again fixed for a full term. But according to one legal expert, to do so the city would have to meet more recent Municipal Court Reform Act standards, which now call for the election of court clerks for state constitutional courts.

Charter hurdles

Thus the city likely would also have to amend its charter by public vote for an elected City Court clerk, as well, and that's not likely to happen. If it did, the District Attorney General would be required again to designate a staff attorney for City Court. That's an added public cost that would over-ride the mayor's suggested savings.

Some other municipalities in Hamilton County whose judges exercise jurisdiction in state law for misdemeanors - including Signal Mountain, Soddy-Daisy, Red Bank, East Ridge and Colledgedale - have not yet established elected court clerks for their municipal courts. If their compliance is not grandfathered in under the reform act, that could leave the jurisdiction of their courts open to legal contest.

Lastly, Littlefield has made a legitimate case for consolidating as many urban services as possible with county government to improve tax fairness and efficiency. It would work against that goal to take City Court out of the combined county-city Courts Building, where it shares security, utilities and space, and stuff it in an inappropriate facility which is not designed for court purposes.

Why bother? The maxim in this case should be, if it's fixed, don't break it.