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VOL. 125 | NO. 186 | Friday, September 24, 2010

Proposed Judicial Changes Have Received Little Attention

By Bill Dries

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The proposed consolidation charter on the Nov. 2 ballot would mean a name change for several courts and one less elected court clerk.

The charter must pass in the city of Memphis as well as the county outside Memphis in separate vote counts to begin the new metro government.

The document spells out the terms for each part of government including one that has received virtually no attention in the growing debate over consolidation and what is in the charter – a debate that is growing in intensity.

Article 5 covers the judicial branch of the new government and affects judges, clerks and attorneys as well as taxpayers.

Judicial:

The Metropolitan Court System includes three courts with foundations and requirements in state law but also tied to what is now Shelby County government: General Sessions, Probate Court and Juvenile Court.

The other courts and their clerks, as well as the district attorney general, are established in the Tennessee Constitution as well but are not affected by the proposed metro charter.

Every elected position in the two parts of the judicial branch has eight-year terms of office except the clerks, which have four-year terms. That would remain the same as well as the election cycle that comes around next in 2014.

The three divisions of city court, which most citizens know as the place where traffic cases are heard, would become part of General Sessions Court with the records of the court handled by the elected General Sessions Court clerk.

The General Sessions judges pick one of their own each year to be the presiding judge responsible for upholding court rules, preparing the annual budget of the court and calling meetings to address issues involving how the courts operate.

The sitting General Sessions Court judges who now handle the first civil and criminal hearings and appearances for defendants and litigants would have the added power to hear the cases now heard in the three divisions of city court.

Like the city court judges, General Sessions Court judges, civil and criminal, are elected and would remain elected in non-partisan elections.

The office of City Court clerk, now one of only four citywide elected offices, would be eliminated with the merger into the General Sessions Court system.

Probate Court and the Probate Court clerk’s office would continue as elected positions.

But the charter gives the new metro government the authority to merge those functions into existing courts at some future date as other counties in Tennessee already do.

A metro public defender and divorce referee would also continue as appointed positions.

But the new metro council would have to pass an ordinance establishing the terms of the offices even if they remain the same. That ordinance would include the pay, qualifications and how to fill vacancies.

Vacancies in any of the judicial positions tied to the metro government are filled by the metro council within 120 days after the office becomes open.

If there is a regularly scheduled election within the four months, the council can pass on making an appointment and voters would fill the vacancy.

The Shelby County Commission now fills these vacancies in General Sessions, Probate and Juvenile courts.

The governor fills vacancies in Chancery and Circuit courts as well as Criminal Court and would retain that power even with a metro charter.

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