Chancery Court cases in the six-county 12th Judicial District are largely stalled until August, when a new chancellor will be elected to fill the vacancy created by Chancellor Jeffrey F. Stewart's sudden retirement.
Clerks and masters in chancery courts across the district say the situation hasn't been problematic, in part because Stewart's fellow 12th Judicial District judges already had been lending a hand in recent months. The district includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties.
"Judge [Justin C.] Angel and Judge [J. Curtis] Smith in Dunlap, they've been helping the chancellor all along through his sickness," Bledsoe County Clerk and Master Greg Forgey said Thursday. He added that lawyers in Chancery Court cases also have worked together on scheduling.
"In probate matters, the clerk and master has the authority to open those," Franklin County Clerk and Master Tippy Bailey said echoing a similar remark by Forgey.
"In the summer months, a lot of the attorneys are on vacations and have not set anything so it's been running like usual," Bailey said.
In June, Stewart submitted a notice of retirement to the Administrative Office of the Courts that was addressed to Gov. Bill Haslam, citing health reasons.
"It is the ravages of age, time, stress and health that has brought me to this abrupt ending," Stewart states in the notice.
Officials said Stewart has authority to sign orders for 60 days after the effective date of his retirement. If needed, his authority might be extended.
The situation is new for most 12th District officials. In most judicial vacancies, a replacement is appointed, officials said.
"It is rare for an opening to go straight to election versus appointment, but it has happened before," Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Barbara Peck said via email.
"The decision on when an opening is filled by appointment or goes on the election ballot is made by the governor's office," Peck said. "I believe it has a lot to do with the timing of the opening and the election and whether the Trial Vacancy Commission can do its required work between the retirement and the election."
In his letter to Haslam, Stewart urged the governor to allow voters to fill the post.
"Since I have always believed, as judges, we are stewards presiding over the peoples' courts, it is my sincere hope the people of the 12th Judicial District will be allowed to choose my successor at the August 2, 2018, general elections," Stewart wrote.
The seat, now on the August ballot, will have two candidates seeking to serve Stewart's remaining six-year term, which runs out in 2022.
Stewart's son, Franklin County resident David Stewart, an attorney in Winchester, is running as an independent while the Republican Party held a caucus, nominating Marion County resident Missy Thomas Blevins for the GOP slot on the ballot, records show. Blevins is now the municipal judge for the city of Jasper.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.