Former official disputes Loudon judge's backlog claim
Hugh G. Willett knoxnews.com
Dueling narratives from a sitting judge and a former judicial commissioner tell two different stories about the state of the Loudon County General Sessions Court.
Shortly after General Sessions Court Judge Rex Dale told the county commission early this month he needed another judge because he was working long hours to clear a backlog of 300-400 cases left over by his predecessor, Judge Bill Russell, a former judicial commissioner sent a private email to commissioners denying Dale's assertions.
Cissy Chapman, judicial commissioner for General Sessions Court from 1994-2010, told commissioners Dale's claim about the backlog of cases was "an outrageous lie." She also challenged Dale's handling of current cases, which she claimed has contributed to jail overcrowding.
Chapman, who had been working as a judicial commissioner for the Lenoir City Court before resigning early this week, said under former Judge Russell it was impossible to have a backlog of hundreds of cases.
"There were several cases (domestic, divorce, etc.) that were pending orders being submitted from the attorneys and such, but nothing that a semi-intelligent law clerk could not read the memorandum and determine status," she wrote.
She said before Dale's election in 2010 he had told her and Russell that he intended to keep her and the court officer on after his election.
"He said in front of witnesses, ‘This court runs like a well-oiled machine. I would be foolish not to keep both.' He fired me the day he took the bench," Chapman wrote.
Chapman also accused Dale and his current judicial commissioner of turning off their phones after hours. She said Dale was not experienced in criminal law and handled only a few civil matters such as uncontested divorces during his career as a private attorney.
"Before seeking office, Dale practiced very little in General Sessions Court. He would ask me for an appointment to represent indigent defendants in criminal cases, but most often his secretary, the present judicial commissioner, would call the day, or hour, before court to say he could not make it, going fishing or had sudden conflict," she wrote.
If there is a backlog of cases, Chapman said, it is because Dale is continuing cases without making a ruling.
"He is creating his own backlog by arbitrarily continuing cases. Check the docket — it's ridiculous. Continue to get a lawyer, get a driver's license, pay fines and costs, but not just to be moving them. These people — if they have a job — are in fear of losing them because of continuances; same as witnesses who cannot afford to appear over and over," she said.
Current overcrowding of the county jail is a result of not efficiently handling cases and of setting bail too high for some defendants, she said.
"There are ways to control jail overcrowding. Without violation of rights by holding inmates without proper mittimus and warrants, by setting a fair bond that is not a punishment and maintaining a workable court docket," she said.
The judge told a different story to the county commission on Jan. 5.
Dale, who was sworn in for his second term in August, said he had been working with state Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, on a bill that would allow hiring an additional full-time judge. The new judge would be subject to funding approval by the commission.
He said he has been working 50-60 hours per week, coming in on weekends to clear the backlog of cases. Dale said the county's population has grown 112 percent since 1959, when the General Sessions Court was established. Roane County has two full-time judges and two magistrates, he said.
He told the commission his responsibility includes five jurisdictions including domestic, juvenile, criminal, civil and probate courts. He also has three administrative supervisors working in juvenile, criminal warrants and general sessions courts.
If the state approved an additional full-time judge, current magistrate Hank Sledge, who is now earning about $95,000 per year, could be made a full-time judge at an additional $20,000, he said.
Dale did not respond to several requests for an interview. Current Judicial Commissioner Kim Nix did not respond to requests for documentation of the backlog of cases.
On Jan. 19, Lenoir City Municipal Court Judge Terry Vann sent a letter to the county mayor and commission assuring them he had nothing to do with Chapman's email and expressing his support for Dale's personal and professional integrity.
"I believe the letter was improper, and for that I apologize to you and Judge Dale," Vann wrote.
According to Lenoir City Mayor Tony Aikens, Chapman resigned the same day.