Despite passing a motion two months ago in support of a private act to establish a second General Sessions Court judge in Loudon County, Loudon County Commission on Monday did not put its final stamp of approval on the position, failing to get the required two-thirds majority that would have paved the way for a new court to open by Sept. 1.
General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale, who has been petitioning commissioners for assistance with the caseload in Loudon County since at least spring 2014, told the board the private act had made its way through Nashville and had been signed by both speakers of the Tennessee General Assembly and Gov. Bill Haslam.
“My judicial ethics required me to come to County Commission when I needed help, and that’s what I did last April and May prior to the 2014 election,” Dale said, noting that the county hired Hank Sledge, who serves as juvenile magistrate and judicial commissioner, this past year to assist with the caseload.
“That helps me in one of my jurisdictions out of one of the five that I’ve got, but it’s like putting a Band-Aid on an open sore,” Dale said.
Dale, who makes about $150,000 in salary and benefits, told commission in April that the county could increase the General Sessions Court litigation tax by as much as $51.97 for a total of $68.97 to assist in offsetting costs associated with paying for a new judge.
The court system has a 94-95 percent litigation tax collection rate on civil cases and a 74 percent collection rate on criminal cases, up from 60 percent when he took office in 2010, Dale said, noting that the tax “provides fully” for the salary and supplements of the two judge posts.
He said the litigation tax is only applied to responsible parties in the court system.
“It’s not penalizing property owners for owning property in this county and having them to pay a judge’s salary,” Dale said. “It’s the people that utilizes the services in General Sessions Court that are responsible for bringing that action, the ones that get the judgment against them. It becomes a tax against them.”
Numerous commissioners expressed a concern that providing final approval and funding for a second judge would damage the county’s case in the ongoing lawsuit between Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw and General Sessions Court Clerk Lisa Niles.
Dale said multiple times during the meeting that the decision to establish a second judgeship was a “totally separate” issue from the Niles lawsuit. As part of her lawsuit, Niles has requested additional deputy clerks for her court offices and salary increases for all current employees.
“I don’t file cases; I decide cases,” Dale said. “She files cases; she doesn’t decide cases.”
He said that regardless of how many court employees the county has on the payroll, the number of cases that must be tried by a General Sessions judge will remain unchanged.
“Adding a second judge now does not do anything to hinder or hurt Lisa Niles’s lawsuit because we can adjust our jurisdictions where we’re not using more than the same employees than we’ve got right now,” Dale said.
Commissioner Bill Satterfield made a motion to approve the second judge, and Commissioner David Meers seconded. The motions were followed by more discussion.
Commissioner Harold Duff said he was in favor of a second judge position, pointing to the county’s current backlog of 350-400 cases.
“Cases are scheduled and rescheduled, and some cases have been in the court system for long periods of time, some as long as four years,” Duff said. “And in my opinion, Loudon County can do better than this. No citizen I don’t think in Loudon County ... should have to wait a long period of time for their case to be heard and be dispensed.”
Commission voted 6-4 in favor of the motion, but the private act resolution failed as it did not receive a required two-thirds majority to establish a new judgeship. Commissioners Kelly Littleton-Brewster, Earlena Maples, Henry Cullen and Van Shaver voted against the measure. The resolution to send the private act to Nashville in support of the second judge passed by an 8-2 vote in April, with Maples and Shaver in opposition.
“A little bit,” Dale said after the meeting when asked if he was disappointed in commission’s decision. “The good thing is it’s still open right now so anything can happen.”
The private act remains good through the end of the calendar year should County Commission seek to reverse course.
“I think it’s unfair to use Lisa Niles’ lawsuit as a wedge to stop the second judge but they’re the voters,” Dale said, noting that he thought the county’s decision was “a shame for Loudon County voters and property owners.”
“That’s the difficult part, making a three-day trial last a year in General Sessions is tough,” Dale said.