Meares issues order saying parts of Local Rules are void

Calls for ‘presiding judge’ to respond or abandon oath

Blount County Circuit Judge Mike Meares issued an order Friday that calls for voiding parts of Local Rules adopted by Circuit Judge Dale Young and Chancellor Telford Forgety in April of 2007, and says that the presiding judge responsible for assigning civil and criminal cases should either respond to Meares’ inquires or abandon his oath of office.

Judge Young is the presiding judge.

The order is the latest development in a three-month controversy in which Meares has questioned how Local Rules were adopted, whether they were given appropriate public notice before being adopted and, in a separate issue, how statistical information such as case dispositions are reported to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

While some in the legal community questioned if Meares had authority to hold administrative hearings and call witnesses without a criminal case involved and called the whole issue political posturing, the judge said “this court has the authority and obligation to act with respect to its administrative responsibilities.”

Judge Meares, a Democrat, is being challenged for his seat by Republican General Sessions Judge David Duggan in the Aug. 7 election.

Meares said judges have disciplinary responsibilities to take appropriate action “when they receive” information indicating a substantial likelihood “that another judge or lawyer has committed a violation of the Judicial Code or the Rules of Professional Conduct.”

In the report, Meares said, “This court has not found and does not imply by its inquires the misconduct of any individual. Nevertheless, the presiding judge’s exercise of a unique administrative authority granted by a Local Rule adopted during the vacancy of office of the sitting judge, coupled with multiple erroneous misstatement of fact, require a response or the abandonment of the oath of office.”

The “findings of fact, analysis and order” released Friday is a 22-page document where the judge outlines what he has done and learned since April when he filed a letter with the Blount County Bar Association asking for a change in Local Rules. At the heart of his request was an issue with civil cases being transferred to Meares’ Division II court from Young’s Division I court.

Meares noted that on April 25 Young issued a memo transferring 29 civil cases to Meares’ court.

Meares stated in his July 11 finding that Young used his presiding judge authority to transfer those 29 civil cases to him, two of which Young should have known Meares had conflicts and shouldn’t have received. The cases he cites are Donna Phillips vs. Asbury Center, a case where Meares acted as council, and Ana Matilde Calixto vs. Fernando J. Calixto, a case where Young has publicly claimed Meares had an interest.

In addition, Meares said Young transferred the State of Tennessee vs. Kenneth Lawrence Melton, after years of pending in Division II, to Young’s Division I court.

“The court notes the reassignment of three specific cases which appear not to be in conformity with judicial obligations to maintain impartially in the administration of justice.”

Meares said that Young also criticized Meares in that memorandum, saying he had not in fact cleared all his cases and had a backlog of criminal cases.

In his July 11 finding, Meares said Young’s memo “cites hearsay evidence from the clerk (Circuit Court Clerk Tom Hatcher), unnamed members of the Bar and unnamed judges to support the conclusion that Meares had created ‘mass confusion’ and ‘delayed the prompt and efficient handling of the criminal docket.’

This is how the two controversies - the Local Rules and the question of statistical reporting to the AOC - coincide. It all had to do with the numbers Young used in the April 25 memorandum. While Young said Meares had a backlog, Meares said he did not.

Prior to a June hearing, Hatcher said both figures were right on the respective days they were given and that the number of cases reported disposed of changes daily. He said there also is a natural lag time because documentation on the disposed cases must be sent to Nashville and processed with the A.O.C.

Meares said some case dispositions weren’t reported to the A.O.C. as required by law and some cover sheets mailed by the clerk weren’t received at the A.O.C.

Meares said the authority given to the presiding judge, a position that rotates annually between the two Circuit judges, by the Local Rules doesn’t conform to state statutes. “”Nowhere in the statutes does language appear relative to authority as the ‘final arbiter of the case load.’ In fact, the statue indicates the presiding judge’s authority is permissive rather than absolute,” he said.

Findings of fact and orders

Meares issued four orders:

• The Circuit Court Clerk shall continue to improve the system for statistical reporting of criminal case dispositions and report on or before July 18 as to measures taken to correct problems with the Bridge Computer System.

• The Circuit Court Clerk shall report the exact number of criminal case filing in Circuit Court from July 1 2007 to present.

• The introductory paragraph to Local Rules adopted by Young and Forgety in April 2007 was never published pursuant to Rule 18 of Supreme Court rules “and is void and of no effect.”

• The paragraph of Local Rules regarding the Presiding Judge rule stating that the presiding judge be “the final arbiter of the case load for the Fifth Judicial District to maintain the designation of the judges to hear civil and criminal cases” is void and of no effect to expand the statutory authority of the presiding judge.

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