In Blount County courts, judges make the Local Rules attorneys work under. Local Rules include which judge hears what cases, whether the case be criminal or civil.
In Blount County, a presiding judge -- a position that heretofore has rotated between Division I (Civil court) Judge Dale Young and Division II (Criminal court) Judge D. Kelly Thomas, Jr. -- has been responsible for dividing cases. In previous years, Thomas heard criminal cases and Young and Chancellor Telford Forgety heard civil cases.
In April, Blount County’s newest judge, Division II Circuit Court Judge Mike Meares began questioning the process.
Meares has declined on-the-record interview requests regarding the Local Rules issue. He has, however, requested the Blount County Bar Association revisit their input into the Local Rules, and, when they did not choose to do so, has brought the matter into open court.
Local attorneys Melanie Davis and Rob Goddard were members of the committee for the bar association in 2006 who looked at Local Rules. Meares has subpoenaed both to court, with Davis having appeared once and is scheduled to appear again this Friday. Goddard has appeared once to hand over records and was in court Friday, June 6, to testify.
Davis said the question about Local Rules first came about in April when Meares began talking with members of the Blount County Bar Association about wanting to change the way civil cases are assigned.
“He wanted a regular distribution of civil cases made between Division I and Division II,” she said.
Davis said the bar association was non-committal and didn’t take action to reconvene the Local Rules committee.
At the May meeting of the Blount County Bar Association, Meares’ brother, Rom Meares, asked that the Local Rules Committee be reconvened to consider making the change.
“For whatever reason, they wanted the local bar to reconvene the Local Rules committee to suggest ways to change the way civil cases are assigned,” Davis said. “They’re not really our rules to begin with, so that wasn’t a necessary step (in order) for Local Rules to be revised, if that’s what the judges want to happen.”
Davis said the Blount County Bar Association took no action on the request at their Wednesday, May 7 meeting. On Saturday, May 10, Judge Meares subpoenaed Goddard and Davis to bring files to his court for an administrative hearing in his courtroom the following Monday morning at 8 a.m.
The judge signed the orders at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10, and hand delivered them to Maryville Police officers to serve at the lawyers’ homes that day.
Davis said the officers delivered her the subpoena to her home at 10 p.m. on Saturday.
“That Saturday night was when I was served with a subpoena to be in court Monday morning. The day in-between was Mother’s Day,” she said. “That is extremely unusual for a lawyer to be served at her house with a subpoena. It’s never happened to me. I don’t think it has happened to anybody else in the bar. It’s very usual for it to be that late. The whole thing is unusual.”
Davis said her children got upset and feared the police were there to arrest her. “It scared my children,” she said.
Davis retrieved her file from her time on the Rules committee “and appeared at 8 a.m. Monday as I was ordered,” she said.
Davis said she didn’t understand why she had to be subpoenaed to court regarding the issue. “If he (Judge Meares) had just called and wanted to discuss it with me, he could have asked for my file by a call or writing a letter,” she said. “I would have provided it.”
Goddard also appeared on that Monday, did not testify but turned over his files. He was back in court on Friday, May 9, to answer Judge Meares’ questions.
The range of Judge Meares questions appeared to be whether adequate public input was given before changes to the Local Rules were made by the judges in 2007.
As the hearing began on June 9, Meares said, “I want to have an open and frank discussion about the rules,” he said.
Goddard said that two years ago, there was concern regarding the rules of the court being outdated prior to being published on a website, and he was asked to sit on a rules committee for the Blount County Bar Association. Goddard, who now serves as county attorney, said the committee submitted their recommended rules in September of 2006.
Meares asked that if, at the time, Goddard reviewed Rule 18 of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and Goddard said he didn’t. Rule 18 states that prior to the adoption of amendment to Local Rules of the court, the judges of the judicial district shall solicit and consider input from members of the public and attorneys concerning the proposed rules or amendments.
While the bar association members made recommendations regarding rules changes, it was only Young and Forgety who had authority to vote on the changes and that it was up to them to solicit public input, Goddard said.
At that time, Judge D. Kelly Thomas Jr., Meares’ predecessor, had already been elevated by Gov. Phil Bredesen to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Thomas’ seat, which later went to Meares, was empty while these decisions were being made.
Meares questioned Goddard about two changes the judges made to the rules that were different from what the bar committee recommended. The first was a revision of the preamble paragraph which references the “recommendation of the Local Rules committee,” which didn’t include the expanded preamble. Another difference was the insertion of a paragraph that “the presiding judge” shall be responsible for and be “final arbiter” on assigning cases.
Goddard said he didn’t second-guess the judges’ decision to change the rules. “I’m not going to try to second guess what Judge Young or Chancellor Forgety did, and I’m not going to second guess your honor,” he said to Meares. “I believe the authority in Section Two is to the presiding judge, which rotated between Judge Young and Judge Thomas.”
Meares also asked Goddard if he believed there was a discrepancy between the adopted Local Rules and a Tennessee Code Annotated provision that states that the presiding judge is to “reduce docket delays and hold congestion to a minimum” and “seek and maintain an equitable distribution of the workload.”
Goddard responded that he did not see a great deal of difference between what the Tennessee Code and the Local Rules say.
Meares suggested another way. “Would you agree a more simple way (to divide the cases) would be to assign one case back-and-forth in a blind fashion?” he said.
Goddard said both ways held merit.
“In my opinion, it was an equitable way, the way it has always been done between Judge Young and your predecessor,” he said, adding that Meares’ alternative could very well be just as equitable. “My understanding is the presiding judge has always had that authority.”
Meares asked Goddard how the changes happened, and Goddard said the changes happened when Judge Young and Chancellor Forgety signed the order.
“They have authority to change and make amendments as they want,” Goddard said.
“It doesn’t require a committee be appointed, that’s just how Judge Young did it,” Goddard said. “Yes, we gave input as far as the bar association. Judge Young’s letter to Matt Harrelson (then chair of the Bar Association) was the solicitation (for input).”
Judge Meares is being challenged for his seat by General Sessions Judge David Duggan. The election is in August.
Goddard was asked by a reporter whether the whole matter was political in nature.
“It would not have the appearance of being political in nature if it was taken up after the election,” Goddard said. “I’m not saying it is political, but it would not have that appearance if it was taken up after the election. But I’m not saying at all that it’s political.”
Knoxville attorney Tom Mabry was quick to voice his thoughts on the issue in the hallway after the hearing. “No, it’s not political. If it were so political, Judge Meares would have called Judge Young into court. Mike Meares absolutely has the authority to bring this up. The way I look at it, there was a violation of Rule 18 in that there was no input from the public,” he said. “The public needs to have input into Local Rules.”