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New circuit judge not a likely option
Oct 31, 2006 12:00 am
While the possibility of requesting a new Circuit Court judge to alleviate court overcrowding has been discussed, Circuit Court Clerk Linda Neal said legislation unique to Wilson County leaves no choice but adding a third General Sessions judge.
The primary difference is that the county would have to provide funding for salary and staff for a General Sessions judge, while the state would pay for a new Circuit judge.
However, a Private Act passed in 1986 by the General Assembly allows participants in cases normally heard in Circuit Court – such as divorces and custody cases – a choice to file in either General Sessions and Circuit Court.
The caseload for Circuit Courts is reported to the Tennessee Judicial Information System – which determines whether a district needs another Circuit judge. However, these General Sessions cases – including those which otherwise would be in Circuit Court – are not accounted for, meaning they cannot be counted towards meeting that threshold set by the TJIC.
"Because of that, we cannot get a Circuit Court judge," Neal explained. "We're just borderline. The only way we can alleviate the overcrowding of the court … is to add another General Sessions judge because the state is not going to allow us to add another Circuit judge."
Part of the problem, Neal said, is that the Circuit Court's caseload includes five counties, including Wilson. In addition, one case is one case – "no matter how long," Neal said.
In addition, Neal said that even if the county met the threshold it can be hard to convince legislators to add another judge.
"You can't just go down to the legislature and say we need another judge," Neal said. "And just because your stats say you need another judge doesn't mean you're going to get it."
"… If you need one judge, you might get to the point where you need two judges before you get one judge."
And both courts are overloaded, Neal said. It can take up to five months to get a contested divorce case heard in either system.
"We have [General Sessions] court going on into the night and on Saturdays," Neal said.
Adding a General Sessions judge, including salary, staff and benefits, would cost the county about $320,000, a recent report from Finance Director Janice Branchaud showed. The new judgeship would still have to be approved by the state legislature, but it would be up to county commissioners to fund the new position.
If approved, commissioners have the option of either waiting until the 2008 election to select a judge or appointing someone in 2007.
Members of the county's Judicial Committee are split on which route to take.
District 17 Commissioner Gary Keith has been a vocal proponent of putting the new judgeship on the ballot rather than he or she being selected by 25 squires.
"It will probably be out of the legislature about next year," Keith said. "Even then, we wouldn't be ready to put the judge in place because there'd be no money budgeted for that position, so you're looking at September. All I'm saying is I don't think the county commissioners need to be picking the judges."
Keith added that the question was put on the ballot in 1986 when the private act was instituted and Hamilton was elected, "and he's still on the bench today."
However, District 2 Commissioner Ken Holland said the need is too great to wait longer than necessary.
"I think it'd be a wise move for the commission to appoint somebody," Holland said. "… Courts are a service that the county provides. I have not been in a custody battle, but I couldn't imagine waiting nine to 10 months until the case is heard."
District 25's Randy Hall agreed with Holland, saying the need is simply too great to wait.
"If we get it approved and the funding's available, it'd be ludicrous not to get someone in there," Hall said. "… The overall thing is it would benefit the county and the system. It's not because of anything else."
But District 21's Eugene Murray said it would be best to let voters decide in 2008.
"We'll get ahead of ourselves, I'm afraid, if we moved on that," Murray said. "That needs to be the people's choice."
District 22's Heather Scott said she was still trying to make up her mind.
"That's something I'd like to find out from the community more," Scott said. "If people are having to wait to go to court for six months or go, that's a service-related issue. If that's happening more often than not, that's something we need to take into consideration … especially if there's kids involved."
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at email@example.com.