Jerry Summers: They Eliminated The Judge's Court

Wednesday, October 28, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

One of the most unusual cases in the history of the judiciary in Tennessee was the Tennessee Supreme Court decision of Harold Duncan v. Rhea County, reported in 287 S.W.2d 26(1955).

Although the facts which led to the action of the Tennessee legislature passing Chapter 570 of the Private Acts of 1953 are not stated in the above decision, they are relevant and important. Said private act was a simple repealing Act undertaken to repeal Chapter 868 of the Acts of 1949 which had established a Court of General Sessions for Rhea County, Tennessee for an additional division in Spring City, north of Dayton.

Harold Duncan was a practicing attorney who was elected as the incumbent judge of the above court and, after his court was eliminated by the 1953 Act of the Tennessee legislature, he filed suit asserting his right to continue and hold said office until his eight-year term of office expired on September 1, 1958.

Judge Duncan had won his case in the lower trial court and Rhea County had taken the extraordinary action of getting the Tennessee General Assembly to pass the 1953 act which simply did away with the Spring City Division of the General Sessions Court occupied by Judge Duncan.

Duncan appealed on the grounds that the elimination of his court violated his rights under the Tennessee Constitution.

We will now fill in the facts omitted by Justice Swepston in his opinion upholding the elimination of Justice Duncan’s Spring City division on December 9, 1955 and finalized in overruling a rehearing petition on February 3, 1956.

It appears that the sport of “cockfighting” was regularly engaged in by the citizens of Spring City in the northernmost municipality of Rhea County, although it was illegal under the laws of the state of Tennessee.

The “sport” is defined as a blood sport in which two roosters specifically bred for aggression are placed beak to beak (pitted) in a small ring and encouraged to fight to the death.

Although illegal in all 50 states, the practice still persists across the nation and the “World Series of Cockfighting” is yearly held in Louisiana.

Tennessee in the 1950s (and even today) was an active venue for such sport although opposed by the Humane Society of the United States.

On an undisclosed date and location in Rhea County sometime prior to 1955, a large crowd gathered to enjoy the gory slaughter of the doomed roosters in a circular cockpit.

Frequently the contests' excitement was elevated by the consumption of the presence of both legal and illegal alcoholic beverages in additional to wagering on the outcome of the deadly contest.

Law enforcement had been informed of the scheduled event, which was attended by a large crowd. Officers decided to conduct a raid which upon their arrival resulted in a wild scattering of the spectators fleeing the premises. 

Unfortunately for some they did not all get away and one of those arrested was the Honorable Harold Duncan, General Sessions judge.

The cases came on to be heard on Judge Duncan’s docket and he made the fateful decision of not recusing (declining to hear) himself from the cases of his colleagues and his own date with destiny.

He listened attentively to the testimony of the law officers in all of the other defendants’ cases and then made the judicious decision to dismiss all of their cases because of lack of evidence or illegal searches and seizures under the Tennessee Constitution.

Having dismissed all of his co-defendants cases he then proceeded to rule on the only remaining cause on the docket – his own.

According to historical rumor his logic in dismissing his case was very simple.

“If the others weren’t guilty how could he be guilty?”

Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court later held that it was proper to just eliminate Judge Duncan’s court rather than address the facts and the provision of Article VI Section 7 of the Tennessee Constitution which holds that:

“Judges shall at stated times receive a compensation for their serves to be ascertained by law, which shall not be increased or diminished during the time for which they are elected.”

Simply stated Rhea County could not fire Judge Duncan, but they could do away with his Court! – (and they did!)

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)  


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