State investigator questions judge’s hearings for Local Rules

The Tennessee Court of Judiciary is once again investigating the conduct of a Blount County judge, sending investigator James LaRue to interview several members of the Blount County Bar, law enforcement and staff of the Blount County Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

Under investigation is the conduct of Circuit Court Judge Mike Meares in his questioning regarding Local Rules.

A Court of the Judiciary special investigator on Friday, June 27, interviewed several members of the Blount County Bar, law enforcement and staff with the Blount County Circuit Court Clerk’s office.

The investigator interviewed local attorneys and staff on Friday, June 27, in regards to Meares’ recent administrative hearings questioning Local Rules for how civil cases are assigned.

What has become an ongoing saga that has captured the attention of the Blount County legal community began when the judge asked, in an April letter to the Blount County Bar Association, that they consider reconvening a Local Rules committee because it appeared there wasn’t adequate public input when Judge Dale Young and Chancellor Telford Forgety adopted the Local Rules in early 2007.

According to attorney David Black, during a monthly meeting of the Blount County Bar Association on May 8, the judge’s brother Rom Meares requested the Local Rules committee be reconvened but Bar members chose to table the issue until after the August election for fear the issue was political in nature. General Sessions Judge David Duggan is challenging Meares, who Gov. Phil Bredesen named to replace Judge D. Kelly Thomas Jr. after he was elevated to the State Court of Criminal Appeals.

LaRue’s questions on Friday were about what happened two days later, on Saturday, May 10, when Meares signed orders for attorneys David Black, Melanie Davis, Steve Ogle and Rob Goddard to appear in court the following Monday, May 12. The orders were stamped in a 24-hour lobby of the Blount County Jail before they were hand-delivered to Maryville Police Department for officers to serve on the attorneys.

While the attorneys filed the requested documentation with the judge on May 12, two of them, Melanie Davis and Rob Goddard also were asked to return to court to testify to how the Local Rules were established.

In the May 30 hearing, Meares questioned Goddard about his knowledge of the rules adoption, asking if a more equitable system for assigning civil cases would be for cases to go back and forth between himself and Young in a blind fashion. While the May 30 hearing with Goddard lasted 20 minutes, Meares questioned Davis for more than an hour during a June 13 hearing. A court reporter was used in each administrative hearing.

Throughout the time Meares has questioned lawyers regarding the Local Rules, he has chosen not to comment outside of court but has requested that his “statements in court” and in his “orders from the bench” speak for themselves.

The people the investigator questioned included Blount County Chief Deputy Ron Dunn, Mary Millsaps with the Blount County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, attorneys Rob Goddard, Steve Ogle, David Black and Melanie Davis, Maryville police chief Tony Crisp and Maryville Police Captain David Graves.

Sue Allison, public information officer with the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the Court of the Judiciary, as a rule doesn’t comment on investigations.

“By state law, it’s not public until or unless formal charges are brought. It’s not public record, so we wouldn’t know if there was an investigator up there,” she said. “That doesn’t preclude anyone in the community from talking about it. That’s a matter for individuals to decide if they want to confirm it or not.”

Davis confirmed that Larue, who is a special investigator with the state Court of the Judiciary, questioned her and Black at their office for two hours Friday morning. They also discussed Black’s letter he recently sent to Meares in which he said the hearings were politically motivated, she said.

“He just asked for information about what went on with the orders that were issued in May and the order requesting me to appear on June 13 to give testimony about the Local Rules. We gave him a copy of David’s letter and a transcription of proceedings from the June 13 hearing and discussed with him what had happened. We gave him an affidavit relative to those incidents, and we attached supporting documents to what had happened,” she said.

Davis said she and Black told the investigator what they knew, but she said they couldn’t speculate on what happens now. “We told him what happened,” she said. “We obviously have no clue what is going to happen.”

Rob Goddard confirmed he met with Larue for about an hour. “He basically asked me what I knew in connection with the two orders issued by Judge Meares for me to appear in his courtroom.”

Ogle did not want to speak regarding the interview. “I met with him but he said it was confidential,” he said.

Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher said the investigator came to his office Friday and asked his staff for copies of orders on May 10 in which Meares requested Rob Goddard, Steve Ogle, Melanie Davis and David Black to appear on May 12.

The investigator also requested a copy of an order from Meares asking that Davis and Goddard appear on May 30 to testify regarding the Local Rules and he asked for a copy of a letter Davis’ partner, David Black, wrote asking for an extension for Davis to respond because she was out of state and couldn’t make a June 6 hearing and requesting it be postponed to June 13.

Hatcher said the investigator also asked for a copy of the time/date stamp that allows people to file documents in the 24-hour lobby at the Blount County Jail, and for a copy of the stamp used in the normal daily process when the Circuit Court Clerk’s office is open.

“He wanted to know when we received the first order (from Saturday, May 10), and we told him we received it from the judge’s secretary on Tuesday or Wednesday, May 13 or May 14,” Hatcher said.

Hatcher said the investigator asked what the normal process was, and he was told that, after civil papers are processed, the sheriff’s office serves the paper work. “He asked why it was taken to Maryville Police Department and that was a question we could not answer,” Hatcher said. “We have no idea why it was taken to the City of Maryville.”

Hatcher said the investigator also asked about the court reporter used in the administrative hearings. “He wanted to know who paid for it, and we had no idea. We had no idea who requested the court reporter other than the judge, and who paid for it,” Hatcher said.

Chief Dunn said the investigator questioning him for about 30 minutes on the sheriff’s office service of the process relative to local attorneys involved in the hearing and how those subpoenas ended up at Maryville Police Department as opposed to the sheriff’s office.

“He wanted to know the process and how it typically flows and why these were different. I couldn’t answer that, but they were different,” said Dunn. “They were not the norm.”

Dunn said LaRue asked what the sheriff’s department would have done if given the papers.

“He asked me had those papers been walked 10-feet across the hall, would you have served them? I said absolutely, that’s required by statute but we weren’t asked. They didn’t come through our office. You’ll have to ask whoever delivered those papers to Maryville (Police Department.)”

Dunn said the process of having the orders stamped at the 24-hour lobby and then hand-delivered for MPD officers to process was odd.

“I’ve never seen court documents flow like that. The process was not the norm,” he said.

Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp agreed with Dunn’s assessment. “I’ve never seen that happen in my history with the police department. As a rule, we don’t typically serve process unless we’re asked by the sheriff to serve process,” Crisp said. “In this case, it was a Saturday afternoon and a sitting Circuit Court judge came in and spoke with a supervisor on duty and asked if they could serve civil process (and) he needed them served that day. We did that.”

On Wednesday, Meares said he welcomed any thorough investigation of the Blount County judiciary by the state. “It is long past due. If anyone thinks the public’s business I’ve conducted in open court and on the record is objectionable, they should take a long look at the business conducted here in private over the past several years,” he said. “A thorough investigation may be just what is needed to restore public confidence in the judiciary’s integrity and impartiality.”

This is the second time in less than a year that the Court of the Judiciary has sent an investigator to review matters related to a Blount County judge. In 2007, an investigator conducted interviews surrounding Circuit Court Judge Dale Young in connection with an order of protection hearing from September. No charges were filed or public report released regarding the Judge Young investigation.

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