It was another week and another step in the debate between Circuit Court Judge Mike Meares, Circuit Judge Dale Young and some members of the Blount County legal community regarding how Local Rules for civil cases were adopted.
At the root of the debate is Meares’ belief that attorneys failed to call out Young when he and Chancellor Telford Forgety adopted Local Rules. Young said Bar members had input and recommended the rules, while Meares said there is evidence they did not.
On June 13 Meares questioned Bar association Local Rules committee chair Melanie Davis for more than an hour in what at times was a testy exchange between him and Davis.
On Monday, June 16, Meares declined comment on the rules question and on any memorandums written to or about him by Young. The judge has maintained a stance that he would communicate via his comments in court and through his orders.
While Meares’ comments in court suggested this was a matter of lawyers not bringing out the truth, Judge Young issued a letter on Monday, June 16, stating that attorneys reviewed the proposed Local Rules changes twice before he and Chancellor Telford Forgety approved them. Young stated in a letter to Judge Meares that he believed Meares, was playing politics by making issue of the Local Rules for civil cases.
The story began on May 8 when several lawyers, including Meares’ brother, Rom Meares, petitioned the Blount County Bar Association to reinstate a Local Rules committee to fix what they believed was an oversight in the Local Rules governing civil cases. These rules had been updated two years ago. Davis and attorney Rob Goddard were on the committee then and submitted a proposal to Judge Young.
At the crux of the discussion on May 8 was Rule 18 in the Tennessee Supreme Court rules which states that prior to the court adopting or amending Local Rules, the judges of the judicial district shall solicit and consider input from members of the public and attorneys concerning the proposed rules or amendments.
The Bar leadership was asked to reinstate the Local Rules committee because some believed the committee hadn’t been given the opportunity to review changes made in the preamble and in paragraph two of the Local Rules governing civil cases in Blount County.
Bar association members balked at reinstituting the Local Rules committee, and said it was too close to the time of the election between Judge Meares and Judge David Duggan, a General Sessions judge running to unseat Meares. The leadership wanted to wait until after Aug. 7 to consider any action regarding the complaint.
On May 10, the Saturday before Mother’s Day, Judge Meares issued subpoenas, calling Davis, Goddard and attorney Steve Ogle to court the following Monday with documents pertaining to the issue. On May 31, Goddard appeared in court at Meares’ request to answer questions regarding how the rules were made. Goddard said that any changes made by Forgety and Young were their prerogative.
On June 6, Judge Young sent a memorandum to Davis telling her his recollection of how, in the summer of 2006, he asked the Bar Association to assemble a committee to update Local Rules. Young said the request came because the Chief Justice had sent a request to the Administrative Office of the Courts that Blount County make Local Rules available on the AOC website. Young said that in light of that, and the possibility that Judge D. Kelly Thomas Jr. might be elevated to the appellate court, “it was appropriate that a paragraph be inserted relative to the duties and responsibilities of the presiding judge.”
Young said the revised Local Rules were disseminated to the AOC on Jan. 5 for them to be posted on its website for public comment. On Jan. 9, Young forwarded the Local Rules to all members of the Blount County Bar for review. “During the 30-day period following the AOC’s publication of these rules, no comments were received relative to the proposed Local Rules,” Young said.
Young said he and Forgety did not adopt the proposed civil rules immediately after they were published for comment and, on April 30, the AOC again requested the Local Rules be re-posted.
“My secretary’s email was again given for comments, but no comments were received by her from the public or the Bar,” Young said.
Young said in January of 2007, he and Forgety made an order adopting the revised Local Rules as they were published on the AOC website. Young also said in his memo to Davis that he remembered a conversation on the phone with her in which he pointed out one additional section he and Forgety added relative to the duties and obligations of the presiding judge.
“As I recall it, you were in agreement with me that it simply restate the statutory duties and obligations of the presiding judge, and we were in agreement that the Bar would have no problem with adding that to our proposed Local Rules,” he said.
Young said the revised Local Rules for civil cases were again sent to every member of the Blount County Bar Association, together with a link to the website that they could make public comment if they cared to do so.
“I stand by our rules and the method and manner by which they were promulgated,” he wrote to Davis. “I stand by our Bar’s decision not to politicize the administration of our system of justice.”
During the June 13 hearing with Davis, Meares began by saying the court wanted to have a “candid discussion about Local Rules and procedures followed when last adopted as well as substance about Rules as adopted.”
The judge said that he wrote Judge Young and Chancellor Forgety suggesting he had been informed that the Local Rules committee did not receive for review two rules they had signed. While Forgety responded to that letter almost immediately indicating he was happy to meet, Meares said he hadn’t received anything from Young.
“My concern was that if something was mistaken or incorrect about how local rule impel or something was inaccurate or untrue about how they were adopted, the court needed to address them as soon as possible,” Meares said.
Meares asked Davis if she recalled when Young wrote a letter to Matt Harrelson in July of 2006 asking for the Bar to appoint a committee to suggest some proposed new Local Rules.
Davis said that while she was asked to be over the entire committee, different lawyers had responsibility for different types of law. She and Goddard had responsibility for civil rules, attorney Martha Meares, the judge’s sister, and attorney Mike Hickman had responsibility for domestic law and Judge D. Kelly Thomas and Phil Reed were to do criminal.
“We divided up in the areas of responsibility. I had nothing to do with criminal or domestic rules,” Davis said. “I was shepherding the committee to make sure these things got done.”
Meares then showed a letter he wrote to the Bar in April asking the Bar to reconvene a Local Rules committee to create a systematic approach to assigning cases between civil and criminal courts. He then showed a letter from Judge Young in response to his April letter to the Bar.
Meares then questioned Davis about the May 8 Bar Association meeting. He asked if there was disagreement among members of the Bar as to whether the preamble and paragraph two in Local Rules governing civil cases were what the committee reviewed and forwarded to Young and Forgety.
“There was some suggestion that perhaps the preamble and paragraph two as adopted were not recommended,” Meares said.
Davis agreed that “There was a question (in the meeting) about the origin of those paragraphs.” Meares then questioned her on changes made to the preamble and to paragraph two describing authority of the presiding judge to assign cases to other judges.
Davis said they were different from what was originally submitted.
Meares again referred to the May 8 Bar Association meeting where the two discrepancies had been discussed. “You had been asked at a Bar meeting if what had been recommended had been adopted. When you saw the discrepancy, did it occur to you to communicate that to this court?” he said.
“It took a while to put the pieces together,” Davis said. “I was aware of the presiding judge part and that that was a change that was going to be made. It wasn’t a discrepancy but something different from what was recommended. Certainly we’re not the party responsible for rules adopted by the court.”
The judge then asked again why she didn’t report the discrepancy to the court and asked why she turned her file on the matter over to her colleague, attorney David Black.
“I discussed what I found with David Black,” Davis said. “We were trying to piece together what had happened a year and a half ago.”
“And you thought you needed the help of your senior partner?” Meares said.
“It was something we discussed,” she said.
Meares then asked her about a phone conversation she had with Judge Young following the Bar Association meeting.
“After talking with Judge Young, did you have a better understanding of how this preamble and paragraph got in?” Meares said.
“I had a vague recollection,” Davis said. “We were both trying to recall the same thing. We were able to recall the same thing independently.”
Judge Meares said, “What refreshed your memory?”
Davis said she and the judge didn’t discuss the preamble at all. “I don’t understand the issue with the preamble,” she said.
“Was that not discussed, whether the preamble was accurate?” Meares said. “Did not some of the lawyers present say, ‘We didn’t recommend this. This preamble was not what we recommended?’”
“They did say that, but I didn’t know what the issue was,” Davis said.
Davis said she believed any changes made to the preamble were non-controversial. She then spoke of a phone conversation she had with Young in January 2007 before Local Rules were adopted by he and Forgety.
“I remember I was sitting at my desk, and he discussed wanting to put in this provision about the presiding judge. We looked, Judge Young and I, at a (TCA)16-2-509. We looked at that language for Local Rules relative to state law,” she said. “The changes we made were non-controversial. We tried to update the antiquated language.”
While Davis said changes made regarding paragraph two and the authority of the presiding judge weren’t controversial, Meares disagreed, citing the May Bar Association meeting.
“Isn’t it a fact there were some at the May meeting who said the rule was unprecedented and power given to presiding judge exceeded authority in the statute, 16-2-509?” he said.
“Someone said that, but I don’t agree with it,” Davis said.
The judge again asked Davis about the preamble, to which she said each part of the committee was responsible for their own sections. “We didn’t review each other’s rules,” she said.
Davis said she never reviewed the preamble. “Is it your testimony that prior to adopting Local Rules, you did not see this preamble?” the judge asked.
“No, I did not. No, we never met and discussed the preamble,” she said.
Davis said the rules committee didn’t meet and recommend the changes to the preamble or to paragraph two.
“Did you convene after that paragraph two was put in? What you’re telling me there was a phone call where there was discussion that Judge Young was going to make changes,” Meares said.
“Yes,” she said. “And that’s his prerogative.”
Meares asked if the Local Rules committee recommended paragraph two.
“I can’t say yes or no. We were OK with it,” Davis said.
Judge Meares said, “The committee never met and didn’t vote on it, didn’t draft it, didn’t recommend it or vote on it.”
“I think what happened was what happened,” Davis said.
“When did you vote to recommend it, or draft it?” Meares said.
“I didn’t draft the substance of it,” Davis said. “Again, they are the court’s rules, and I defer to what the court would desire in that respect.”
Meares again asked Davis about the conversation she had with Young before the rules were finalized.
“The judge felt that additional clarity was necessary. The presiding judge rotates, as I understand it. It would work out in all fairness,” she said regarding how the role of presiding judge rotates between the Division I and Division II judges. “What is good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Meares questioned Davis regarding Tennessee Code Annotate 16-2-509 and the role of the presiding judge. “Would you agree with me the importance of that is to give the presiding judge authority to maintain equal distribution of workload between the divisions of the court?” he said.
“That is what it says,” Davis said of the rule.
Meares then presented a copy of Judge Young’s April 25, 2008, letter to the Blount County Bar saying there is no backlog of cases in civil court. Young’s letter also stated Division II, Judge Meares’ court, was backlogged.
In the letter, Young talks about how Meares has asked multiple times for Young to assign him civil cases. Meares then asked Davis’ opinion on Young assigning cases to a division that was backlogged.
“This is beyond what I feel qualified to comment on,” she said. “This is a situation that exists between the judges, and I don’t feel comfortable commenting.”
“Isn’t the point of the statute to maintain equilibrium? Doesn’t this run contrary? Since there is backlog in Division II and not in Division I, but I’m going to assign cases to a division where there is backlog?” he said.
“I can’t comment on that,” Davis said. “I have nothing to do with this issue. I do think (the question) is unfair.”
Meares asked Davis if it was that fair Blount County’s Local Rules were incomplete as published. Davis said the individuals responsible for submitting new criminal and domestic rules never turned theirs in to the judges.
“Why weren’t criminal rules submitted?” Meares said.
“The criminal committee never got that ball rolling,” Davis said.
Meares then asked if Davis knew whether Division I, Young’s division, had selected any criminal cases.
“There is no way I would know that one way or another,” Davis said.
Meares then reiterated Rule 18 that says, “Prior to the adoption or amendment of 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.”
“Is it important rule 18 be followed?” Meares asked.
“I believe it was followed,” Davis said.
“Even though the amendments were not recommended,” Meares said.
“They didn’t have to be,” she said.
After another few minutes of questioning and answering, Meares ended the hearing, and Davis picked up her paperwork and left.
On June 16, Young sent a letter to Meares declining to meet with him regarding the civil Local Rules. “I am unwilling to spend taxpayer’s time and money for three members of the judiciary to discuss what appears to be a novel political issue of interest to you and your campaign and to no one else. That time should be spent trying the cases scheduled or assigned to come before each of us,” he said. “Therefore I decline your offer to discuss the Local Rules until after the August general election.”
On the same day, Young also issued a letter to the members of the Blount County Bar Association.
“To the members of the Blount County Bar Association:
“It is my understanding that Judge Meares held another hearing on Friday, June 13th at which time he subjected Melanie Davis to cross-examination in his capacity as judge, jury, complainant and prosecutor. It is my further understanding from those present that the judge was rude to Ms. Davis and particularly adversarial in his approach to Ms. Davis and to the subject.
“For such treatment by a member of the judiciary, this member of the judiciary sincerely apologizes to Ms. Davis and to the members of the Blount County Bar. None of you should ever be subjected to such treatment if for no other reason than human decency so requires it.
“Ms. Davis simply volunteered her valuable time and expertise to render a valuable service to our bar, together with Mr. Goddard and perhaps others. She needs to be thanked for her selfless service and not treated in a rude and ill manner. She certainly is not a party to a vast right-wing conspiracy to dupe the bar into adopting rules not desired by it or by the Judges of the Fifth Judicial District.
“After 11 and a half months on the bench and only at election time has Judge Meares found it to his benefit to question the adoption of our local rules. Because I am convinced these hearings are solely for political purposes, I am unsure what spin the Meares’ campaign will put on these proceedings.
“I assure you our local rules were properly adopted and were published two (2) times for public and bar comment by the Administrative Office of the Courts. With that in mind, I wanted you to know every detail of the adoption of the rules, just as I relayed them to Ms. Davis in the “Davis Memo,” attached, and in the other correspondence also attached in seven (7) separate documents.”