Blount County Court Clerk Tom Hatcher says Judge Mike Meares has his answer in front of him but still wants his day in court.
Last week, Judge Meares ordered Hatcher to appear before him to explain why 98 cases the judge identified as completed did not appear in the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts report.
After pulling and checking the cases and conferring with the AOC in Nashville, Hatcher says he has explanations for all 98 cases, which is really 96 cases, he said, because two cases are listed twice.
The AOC also sent a full report to the judge on Monday, Hatcher said, with answers to all of Meares questions. On receiving the information, however, Meares rescheduled Monday’s hearing to Wednesday, June 18.
Circuit court clerks across the state by statute must send reports for cases heard by their circuit court judges to the AOC.
Hatcher said the AOC has provided the judge everything he asked for regarding the status of the cases. “We’ve done everything he advised us to do, and the AOC has provided him with information, and he still wants to have an open hearing. We expected to appear in court and give him the information he wanted (Monday afternoon). Then the AOC provided him that same information this morning,” said Hatcher.
In a prepared statement released after the hearing was rescheduled, Hatcher said, “The director of the AOC has made Judge Meares aware of this fact as well as possible reasons his records are different from the AOC’s,” he said.
In the press release, Hatcher said that “in open court the judge made mention then that he would not take action against me unless it was shown that I had intentionally misreported matters, or I refused to correct any errors discovered. I am personally offended that this judge has suggested that myself or my staff would intentionally misreport cases to the AOC. This accusation is absolutely untrue and to me it seems this whole process is politically motivated.”
Hatcher said he has told Meares on more than one occasion that any questions he has “can and will” be addressed with a simple phone call to Hatcher or his staff.
“He chose not to make this phone call, but instead to begin a formal court proceeding. I have never heard of such a court proceeding in any court in Tennessee in my 14 years in office and feel sure that neither myself, my staff or the citizens of Blount County would be subjected to this highly unusual practice were it not an election year,” he said. “There is certainly a time and place for politics when judges and other officials must stand for election, but, in my opinion, the Circuit Court of Blount County is not the proper place for political matters.”
Judge Meares, a Democrat, is running for election to the judgeship against General Sessions Judge David Duggan, a Republican. The election is Aug. 7.
Hatcher said Meares began questioning the 98 cases he said have not been accurately reported during his 10 months on the bench after a letter to the editor appeared in the daily newspaper praising Meares for his efforts to clear dockets of cases. Meares’ counterpart, Judge Dale Young, wrote a second letter to debunk the claims in the first one.
“It all stems from letter in the paper stating Judge Meares had cleared the docket, and there was a correction by Judge Young that disputed that. It’s politically motivated when we talk about two letters to the editor. To me, he’s trying to set the record straight that Judge Young is wrong. He’s debating the judge as far as the numbers and that’s where the political part comes in,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher said that when both judges got their figures, the numbers were each probably right. “It changes on a daily basis, we could do a report right now and show how many cases in are Circuit, and they’ve already changed,” he said.
Hatcher said his office sends monthly reports that are due by the 15th of the following month. “At that point, they’re 15 days off,” he said.
The AOC sends quarterly reports regarding cases. For January through March, Hatcher’s office receives that report by the end of April or beginning of May.
Hatcher said it’s called a “clean up process” and in many of the cases Meares questioned, Hatcher’s staff was preparing to send in amended reports already.
“The AOC has put safeguards in so, if we make mistakes and if it’s minor, they call the clerk and ask manually correct it on the phone.”
In other cases, judicial diversions create a snag. “Diversions are the biggest nightmare because of the software. It has a glitch. It sets the case out to the end of the diversion. It doesn’t pick it up and send it on as a criminal case,” he said.
Hatcher said some of the cases were sealed indictments that go back to the 1980s, some were cases bound over from General Sessions Court that don’t get reported unless there’s an indictment. A couple were duplicates, and one was a request to travel that shouldn’t have been reported. In addition, Hatcher said the AOC found between 30 and 40 that were mailed in to them, but, for whatever reason, the AOC didn’t have them.
Hatcher, who hired attorney Craig Garrett to represent the office, said he and his staff were prepared to go to court and answer each case.
“We were ready and prepared to go. He contacted my attorney and asked the case be moved to the 18th of June,” he said. “I’m not angry about it, but I’m still confused.
“I have held the office of Circuit Court Clerk since 1994. State law and regulations of the AOC mandate how cases are recorded and reported. My staff and myself have always followed the law and all procedures of the AOC.”
Hatcher said in the release that AOC personnel have advised him on many occasions that his staff are always helpful, cooperative and timely in their dealings with the AOC.
In a memo to Meares dated June 9 Hatcher wrote that he was surprised when Meares filed an order for him to appear in court to give testimony.
“As a matter of fact, I’m at a loss for words,” he said. “I advised you on your first day in office that my office would help you in any way that we could, and we have done what I told you.”
Hatcher on Monday afternoon said he saw no need for another hearing. “I don’t know why he would want an administrative hearing in open court since the AOC has provided him the information he wanted,” Hatcher said.
Judge Meares has declined to comment on the situation, saying, “What a judge has to say about court proceedings must be taken from his or her written orders or from statements made in open court.”