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Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman points out the poor condition of chairs in his courtroom in the Hamilton County/Chattanooga City Courts building in this file photo.

In a courtroom, no one talks about the sitting.

Those who come for jury duty expect dramatic testimony to prove guilt or innocence. They expect to make a decision that will change lives, to right wrongs.

They don't expect all the sitting.

But from multiweek trials to 12-hour deliberations, the criminal justice system isn't a stand-up act. And in Hamilton County, judges have complained courtroom seating is, at best, cosmetically questionable and, at worst, a public safety hazard. Unfortunately, court summonses don't come with a warning about the hip-numbing, back-aching chairs.

So these judges want the typically tight-fisted Hamilton County Commission to pay for new seating.

"None of the seats are overly comfortable," Judge Don Poole recently warned one potential juror. "The front row is really not comfortable. You want to try and get out of those seats as quickly as possible, and Mr. Ramey (the juror) may have the absolute worst seat up there. I'm sorry, sir."

In the rooms where juries spend hours deciding on verdicts, seats are sinking and/or covered in brown stains that are, in all likelihood, years of coffee spills.

Most of the the Criminal Court seating is 22 years old, the original furniture from the year the courthouse was built.

Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman wants the county to do what he sees as a reasonable part of required maintenance -- to replace, at a minimum, every single mismatched and dirty chair in the three criminal courtrooms.

But county commissioners, citing cost, have indefinitely tabled a measure to replace the chairs.

Steelman stood in his courtroom one day last week, pulling apart exposed layers of upholstery on the blue leather chairs where attorneys sit. He flipped one over, showing the metal base he says he is always afraid will break. A few years ago, one crumpled under an attorney.

"It was embarrassing," Steelman said.

Next door in Division II, Steelman spun a white fabric chair in the witness box.

"There was probably a time that was fashionable," he says. "It's part of the hodgepodge now."

* * *

Since the debate first began in October, those in government circles have taken to calling it "Chairgate."

In late October, all three Criminal Court justices took a morning away from staring at peeling armrests and attended a County Commission meeting. They asked commissioners to purchase 144 replacement courtroom and jury chairs for nearly $60,000.

At the time, the measure passed muster with the commission's finance committee, led by Commissioner Joe Graham. And Graham said the committee would recommend approval to the full commission. But at the following week's meeting, the resolution never made it to the agenda. Graham said afterward he decided to hold it in committee over concerns about the average $416-per-chair price tag.

In mid-November, Graham brought the chair purchase up again. He said an upholsterer told him the chairs could be recovered for a fraction of the replacement cost.

Steelman said he worries that simply reupholstering the furniture won't solve structural problems. In short, he's afraid the chairs won't stop dumping attorneys onto the floor.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said Graham was stepping out of his lane as a commissioner and filibustering the chair purchase -- which was a relatively mundane measure. And he said Graham was insinuating that the county's purchasing department wasn't doing its homework. He said if Graham or other commissioners had issues with the resolution, they should just vote it down.

But Graham said he was only doing his due diligence and asked the county purchasing department to redo the bid, removing distance and brand requirements for suppliers and including replacement chairs for Session Court courtrooms as well.

At the next meeting, Graham first moved to vote against the resolution then immediately voted to table it. Other commissioners followed suit.

Coppinger cringes when he hears "Chairgate."

"We've moved on. There's so much more important stuff to be working on in this county," Coppinger said. "We are not bogged down in purchasing chairs."

On Thursday, Coppinger said that's where the chair purchase remains -- on the commission's table.

"At the end of the day, the motion for the chairs was tabled, and as a result of that, there's no movement on the pricing of those chairs," Coppinger said. "The judges asked for new chairs, general government followed the purchasing procedures, and the commissioners tabled it."

Until the commission does something with the resolution the county can't spend any money.

Gail Roppo, the county's director of purchasing and contract management, said the current bid expires in January -- although the four bidders could extend the bid, she said. But that commonly happens when the vendors believe the bids will be approved. And now that the bids are open, all the vendors know how much their competitors bid for the job.

Graham pointed a finger back at the administration Thursday.

"At this point, we are waiting on the administration and the purchasing department to do something about it," Graham said. "We want to make sure the bid requirements are transparent and can attract more bids. It's not really about the chairs. It's about the bid specs and the procedures we are going through."

He also said Thursday it is his job to ask questions. It is all part of the system of checks and balances, he said.

"At the end of the day, we are the ones with the vote. So if we buy something we shouldn't, or we don't follow the right process, it's on us," Graham said.

 

* * *

 

It's just furniture, Steelman knows. It's easy to make it sound frivolous. But he wants jurors to be comfortable. Law and order depends on it.

Jurors already have to give up work time and listen to sometimes mind-numbing trial proceedings. They're also often exposed to the kind of images and testimony that they wish they could forget.

"They should have accommodations that are clean and safe, and not be subjected to what we have here," Steelman said.

These days, courtroom chairs may not be a top priority to commissioners. But records show they do have a proclivity for comfortable seating.

In the last decade, commissioners have spend more than $17,400 on their own seating arrangements. Eight years ago, when the Hamilton County Courthouse was renovated, the commissioners' 11 chairs were purchased at $812 each, according to county purchasing records.

A year later, all 11 were replaced with $776 La-Z-Boy chairs. Commissioners at the time said the year-old chairs were too slick.

Contact staff writer Claire Wiseman at cwiseman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow her on Twitter @clairelwiseman.

Contact Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481. Follow him on Twitter @glbrogdoniv.

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