General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale said the court, which was created in 1959, currently handles five jurisdictions and averages 1,000 cases per month. He said that on most days he can close more than 50 cases, but some “multiday cases” can take up to a year to try.
“Those are the cases that backlog the system because on those days I hear one case,” Dale said. “I can’t hear 56 or 57.”
He said he is currently working between 60-75 hours per week, which includes some weekend work. Current Juvenile Magistrate Hank Sledge was hired last year at a cost of about $126,000, including a base salary of $95,000 and benefits, to assist with cases and sign arrest warrants.
Dale, whose salary and benefits total about $150,000, said that under state law Loudon County Commission could increase the litigation tax on filing fees from the current rate of $17, which produced $79,117 in revenue in fiscal year 2013-14, by as much as $51.97 for a total of $68.97 to assist with the expense of hiring a new judge. He said the change could “fully fund” both positions as an alternative to increasing property taxes.
“It keeps it with the users that would be utilizing that procedure,” Dale said.
Commissioner Harold Duff asked whether adding a second judge and reducing the caseload would alleviate jail overcrowding at the Loudon County Justice Center.
“Would this drop the jail population to the level as to where we would no longer be on probation by the state of Tennessee because we would be within a level that the jail was built for?” he said.
Dale said he didn’t see a “direct correlation” between caseload and jail population, adding that oftentimes more arrests take place in temperate weather, among other fluctuations in crime patterns.
“Those trends basically don’t really coincide with the filings of cases,” Dale said. “What a second judge does is provide for the efficient flow of the cases that we have coming in and out of the system.”
Duff asked if the change will decrease inmates awaiting trial at the jail.
“They don’t have a long wait for me,” Dale said. “What they have a long wait for ... is in criminal court for a jury trial because when they come in front of me if they are in jail they will come up for their preliminary hearing in seven to 10 days.”
Commissioner Van Shaver said he thought anticipated revenues from the litigation tax could vary, noting that the figures Dale presented to commission seemed “very subjective.”
“I think if you go back and look at the revenue that has been received on that litigation over the past few years, you’ll see that $79,000 is about the average,” Sledge said. “It’s been higher than that at different times, but I don’t think you can say that that’s subjective. I think the proof would bear out that that’s pretty accurate.”
Duff again asked Dale whether adding another judge might assist with the jail overcrowding problem.
“I would think that it would be an actual outflow of that, but I can’t say it’s a direct correlation because remember I’ve got five jurisdictions, and criminal is just one of those jurisdictions, so that’s just one day of the week that we’re talking about,” Dale said.
Dale said he has already shown a proposed piece of legislation to state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, and state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, that would be needed to approve a second judge. He requested Loudon County Commission take up a vote on approving the legislation and the funding for a new judge at its April meeting.