published Monday, November 18th, 2013

Judicial study shows new judges needed in Tennessee

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

Other efforts have been tried to address the statewide allocation of 152 judges, a number that hasn't changed since the mid-1990s except for the Davidson County additions.

In the last legislative session some lawmakers pushed a statewide judicial redistricting bill that would have realigned judicial districts more closely with legislative districts.

The legal community on all sides opposed the measure and the bill failed in the state House of Representatives.

"This discussion about judicial districts being like legislative districts is not a logical discussion," said 12th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Graham.

Lawyers and jurists build the experience, practice and local rules based largely on geography, Graham said. "When people want their cases tried in their county seats, there's really no way to put them into little squares."

An independent study of the need for judges in Tennessee was created to get politics out of the process of creating judge positions. But it might take a dose of politics to actually add judges in the Volunteer State.

The 2013 Tennessee Trial Courts Judicial Weighted Caseload Study was released last month by the state's comptroller office. The study showed that area judges are working slightly more than what is recommended by the National Center for State Courts.

But at least one judge in the region said the local need wasn't as high as elsewhere in the state.

"We're doing the best we can," said Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Graham, who presides in the 12th Judicial District. "We're sure glad it didn't show us as being slackers."

Graham said that a case can go to trial in less than six months in his district, which includes Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Rhea and Sequatchie counties. That outpaces other districts in the state, he said.

The center conducts caseload studies for states that request them to determine if and where new judge positions are needed.

Tennessee paid $275,000 for the first study in 1999. That included a similar analysis of district attorneys and public defenders, according to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. The 2007 study required an overhaul of the measurement model and cost $150,000. The most recent 2013 study cost $135,000.

Across the state, most of the 31 judicial districts needed less than one additional judge. A few had one more judge than needed to manage their caseloads.

But on the far side of Davidson County, a two-county judicial district has seen a population boom and a caseload increase that has outpaced its resources for eight years running.

The study showed that District 19 needs 2.75 judges. That is, by far, the highest deficit in Tennessee.

Circuit Court Judge Ross Hicks said courts in the 19th Judicial District, covering Robertson and Montgomery counties, are "inundated" and it's "starting to result in delays and people having access to courts."

He's not alone in his opinion.

Legislators who represent that area have plans to push for at least one, maybe two judges to be included in Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed 2015 budget. The push would avoid a legislative battle in the upcoming session.

Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, said the need for more judges in his area isn't new.

"If you look at the past few studies, those studies consistently show we have deficiencies," he said. "And it's just getting worse."

Pitts, Hicks and Rep. Curtis Johnson, R-Clarksville, all said the following factors have caused much of the gap in judicial resources:

• Recent population growth. With 142,000 people Clarksville, in Montgomery County, is Tennessee's fifth-largest city and the ninth-fastest growing city in the nation, according to its website.

• A rise in domestic case filings, driven chiefly by an increase of military families living in Tennessee and working across the state line in Fort Campbell, Ky.

• No new state-level judge positions have been created in Tennessee since 2003, when three positions were added to Davidson County, according to state records.

Also, the study shows that Shelby County has 2.76 more judges than it needs, based on caseload requirements.

But removing a judgeship is not something anyone interviewed for this story supported.

Adding judges won't be cheap.

Creating a new judgeship isn't as easy as making a position -- that person will need courtroom space and administrative staff support. And in the case of criminal court or circuit court judges, the Legislature also must create an additional prosecutor position and fund part of the salary of an additional assistant public defender, said Tom Tigue, the chief deputy attorney for the Office of Legal Services at the Legislature.

Tigue said past studies have shown it each new judge position costs an estimated $500,000 a year.

The drive to use the caseload study was an effort to have an objective measure of judicial need, Tigue said. Before the study began, judge positions were created at the discretion of the Legislature, sometimes with no measure of actual need.

Beyond the needs in the 19th District, six other districts need at least one additional judge.

If all needs were met based on the study's recommendations it would cost an additional $4.5 million annually, based on comptroller estimates.

There's also a time element to this. A judgeship can be created at any time by the Legislature. But judge positions can only be moved or eliminated in an election year, Tigue said.

For a judgeship to be created and filled with the upcoming 2014 statewide elections, the Legislature would have to pass the measure by April 6, Hicks said.

If there is a delay, any new judgeships would likely be created after next year's election. The governor could fill the positions and those appointees would then have to run in the next scheduled election.

So adding new judgeships anywhere in the state will take a collective push, money and speed.

And one more thing

"It's just a matter of finding the political will," Hicks said.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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