A letter from 30 attorneys says a recent move by General Sessions Court and City Court judges to close off a hallway near their offices is "an insult" to attorneys who have long had access to the hallway.
The letter from members of the Chattanooga Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also says, "Over a period of time there has been a persistent erosion of collegiality in the General Sessions Court. The disturbing trend has culminated in the closing of the corridor behind General Sessions Court."
The attorneys, including Public Defender Ardena Garth, said, "The culture is increasingly one of hostility between the judges and attorneys and other persons working for the court system."
The order was recently signed by General Sessions Court Judges Bob Moon, David Bales, Christie Sell, Clarence Shattuck and Ron Durby as well as City Court Judges Sherry Paty and Russell Bean.
However, Judges Shattuck, Durby and Bean take down a sign on the back door of their courtroom that says "STOP. Court personnel only" when they are on the bench.
The attorneys said there should have been notice to the lawyers and the public so there could have been input before the order went into effect.
It says the order "makes an already inefficient process grossly inefficient."
The letter says closing the corridor to those who legitimately work in the courthouse "does nothing to increase security."
It says even with the hallway accessible that judges can still have private conferences as take such action as signing warrants privately by closing the doors to their offices.
The letter says there should not be an appearance of impropriety between judges and atotrneys, but that does not mean they cannot talk with one another out of the courtroom.
The attorneys said practice in General Sessions Court "is dependent upon quick access to all the parties concerned, including law enforcement officers, victims, witnesses and multiple attorneys. It says limiting access to the hallway "will only serve to cripple the sincere efforts of members of the bar to work efficiently in General Sessions Court." It says there are limited areas where attorneys can work out cases with some privacy.
The letter says, "The most troubling aspect of the creation and implementation of this rule is the breakdown in civility and congeniality that it represents. The tone of the court is contemptuous of the many hard working attorneys, both private and public, and the many other court personnel who also serve the court well."
It says the courts "should be making every effort to develop transparency, not create an environment in which secrecy is prized."
The letter says, "The court should be glad to have its corridors opened to attorneys, district attorneys, and other court personnel as this encourages accountability by all parties and efficiency of process."
Judge David Bales said, "Neither District Attorney General Bill Cox nor any of his assistants signed the letter. Neither have expressed any dissatisfaction with the judges' order nor has anyone in law enforcement or any entity that provides services to the court complained. In fact, several of the assistant district attorney generals and several other court users have indicated to me that they have absolutely no problem with the restrictions and that the order has not in any material way affected their ability to conduct their business."
Judge Moon said, "We do have significant concerns for one of our colleagues, but I am not at liberty to publicly discuss the matter. Right now every one should be much more concerned about safety than convenience at the courthouse.
"Prior to signing and entering the Order, we consulted with Sheriff Jim Hammond who is in charge of daily security at the courthouse and who encouraged the safety modifications contained in our order. He forwarded a memorandum to us strongly approving the changes before the order was entered. Some on the Sheriff's staff asked why we had not implemented the security measures before now including one longtime and very knowledgeable county commissioner who toured the entire courthouse last week. We also spoke with other Hamilton County commissioners, court officers and several attorneys before entering the order. The order was considered very thoroughly with those in charge of security at the courthouse. Obviously, we could not speak with all attorneys nor all elected officials. The order now more closely aligns our security policies with those of the Hamilton County Chancery, Circuit, Juvenile, Federal and many other courts throughout Tennessee."
The judges said that they have provided a conference room and a large portion of courtroom five for the attorneys to negotiate their pleas.
Judge Bales said, "Security on the second floor of the courthouse had become lax over the years. Not since 9-11 have new security measures been reconsidered. In view of a serious internal security concern which required immediate security action, specific incidences of security breakdowns and the significant numbers of dangerous people in the General Sessions Court, we believed it was our responsibility to review and reasonably modify our safety and privacy policies.
"The second floor is much more volatile than the third floor where the Criminal Courts are located. We have six courtrooms on the second floor; there are only three courtrooms on the third floor. Dangerous defendants are brought before us many times within hours after a murder or serious crime has been committed when tempers are still high, not several months or years later after an indictment. We, too, deal with murder, rape and robbery cases every day and many cases where our courtrooms and hallways are filled with dangerous gang members texting each other out in our hallways and inside of our courtrooms. We have more than five times the number of cases in our courts than those filed in Criminal Court and probably 20 times more people in our courtrooms on a daily basis. We simply do not want another Fulton County tragedy in the courtrooms of Hamilton County."
Judge Moon said, "There are also major fiscal concerns as well as ethical concerns in closing access to our kitchen. We have five judges and three staff members in our General Sessions Court. Only three of the eight drink coffee and yet we have previously had the highest coffee expense in Hamilton County for any office our size. Our annual coffee bill was approximately $2,600 annually for only three people. After restricting our kitchen to judges and our staff and terminating a very expensive coffee service, the expenditure is now less than $500. We have, therefore, saved taxpayers more than $2,100 annually.
Judge Bales said, "We were the Starbucks of the courthouse with the exception that the coffee and amenities were free. We owed it to the taxpayers to change that when it came to our attention and we did."
Judge Paty said, "There is a very nice breakroom complete with coffee, vending machines and tables that the county and city have provided for attorneys and the general public to use at their own expense on the ground floor."
Judge Bales said, "Our copier was breaking down once every six weeks before we restricted it to judges and our staff. Since then our copier has not broken down in more than a year and we have reduced our maintenance and paper cost by more than 50%. We found one attorney zeroxing 148 pages of medical reports that was not even related to any case in our court. We were able to restructure the offices of our staff this year securing our equipment and giving them a little more privacy and security."
The judges also stated that in a recent judicial conference that they were warned by ethics officials about the potential appearance of impropriety in meeting in chambers drinking coffee and socializing with attorneys before and during court sessions.
Judge Paty said, "Frequently, the general public perceives this as 'back door' case fixing and that judges and attorneys are privately discussing cases ex parte. That is certainly a perception that we do not want."
Judge Moon said, "Unfortunately, the lawyers at one time lost both of their conference rooms that adjoin the courtrooms. Sheriff John Cupp was permitted to use them. It took a very long time for us to get one of the conference rooms back for them. The trial lawyers might want to go before the Hamilton County Commission and request to regain access to the other conference room that was originally designed for them. The attorneys remained silent when the conference rooms were taken and have made no effort to get them back."
Judge Bales said, "The judges have given up a significant amount of our designated areas for attorneys and district attorneys to use. We have given up one third of courtroom six for the attorney generals to have offices directly across from our courtroom that attorneys can use to discuss their pleas in private. We are discussing opening up more space in courtroom six. The conference room that we did regain is very convenient for them."
Judge Moon said that 85% of the cases are settled in discussions inside the courtroom between the defense lawyers and prosecutors. He said, "The back hallways and the judge's kitchen were always much more of a social meeting place than a working area. Comparatively very few cases are settled in the back hallways."
Judge Bales said, "Attorneys are always free to make appointments with prosecutors and discuss their cases in the privacy of the prosecutor's offices."
Judge Moon said, "The order has been down for approximately two weeks. Our offices, back hallways and chambers have been so very quiet, secure and orderly that it is very unlikely that the order will be withdrawn or modified. It is strange to walk out of our offices and not see members of the "Bloods" and "Crips" and other suspicious looking people standing immediately outside of our office doors. We can actually speak on the telephones without having to shut our doors and not have to walk around people to get to our courtrooms. We can actually have personal conversations in our offices with citizens, staff, officials, and law enforcement officers seeking search warrants or arrest warrants without wondering who is listening outside of our 'not sound proof' doors. It is a privilege that most all other judges in Hamilton County and Tennessee have always enjoyed. I it is a new found private, orderly and secured environment that we and our staff are only now experiencing for the very first time."
Judge Moon said, "I took the liberty of speaking with most of the assistant district attorneys assigned to the General Sessions Court this morning. Most of them stated that they rarely if ever use the judge's chamber hallways to negotiate cases with defense attorneys. I asked them to give me a consensus number of the cases they believed were actually negotiated in our back hallway. Their consensus was 'less than five percent.' Therefore, in the balance, security and privacy of the judges and staff far outweigh the inconvenience of a negligible amount of plea bargains that were ever conducted in our chamber hallways even before the order was entered."