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VOL. 123 | NO. 46 | Thursday, March 06, 2008

Proposal Calls For Part-Time Judges In City Court

By Bill Dries

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STEP RIGHT UP: A proposal by City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon would restructure the three-judge system into a set of five part-time judges with rotating schedules in and out of the Criminal Justice Center. Sugarmon's goal is to eliminate long lines of citizens waiting to pay traffic tickets. -- Photo By Bill Dries

City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon is recommending that the three-judge City Court system be converted to a set of five or six part-time judges - including two who travel to different parts of the city to hear cases.

Sugarmon made the recommendation last month in a letter to the Memphis Charter Commission, which is selecting proposed charter changes to put to Memphis voters in a referendum later this year.

The commission meets today at City Hall.

The three elected City Court judges preside over cases involving traffic tickets and similar infractions. City Court is not a court of record, meaning it does not have the authority that a General Sessions court has. Matters heard in City Court can be appealed to Circuit Court for that reason.

Sugarmon's proposal would not change that.

"It would be mainly to cut down on the volume that has to come through the court Downtown and at hours during the middle of the work day, which is a real inconvenience," he said. "We may have 500 or so tickets scheduled and they're killing two hours or so out of their work day a lot of times."

Of 250 municipal courts in Tennessee, Memphis and Chattanooga are the only cities that have full-time City Court
judges without General Sessions' jurisdiction.


'Overhaul it'

Although they would be part time, Sugarmon argued the judges should still be elected. Appointed judges or magistrates are the alternative.

"The problem with magistrates is that it's not a final decision and it adds another layer of review to the process," he said. "Even though the magistrates are appointed by the then-sitting judges, they do not have the final say in terms of the disposition of the cases."

City Court Clerk Thomas Long didn't offer an opinion on elected or appointed judges and full- or part-time judges. But he endorsed Sugarmon's call for an overhaul to better serve citizens.

"I think we need night court. People ought not (to) have to take off work and come to court and stay Downtown two or three hours," Long said. "The question is how do you mechanically deal with night court when you've got three full-time judges? You can't just patch the system, you have to overhaul it."

The change proposed by Sugarmon also would allow the City Court judges to pick their own administrative judge who supervises the office and coordinates activities of the court as a whole.

The mayor now appoints the administrative judge, which has been one of several sensitive topics through
the years whenever the judges talk budget and operations with other elected city officials.


Rotations

The strains are most apparent every spring when the judges go before the City Council's budget committee for a review of their budget requests. Every year at some point or another in the budget hearings, the long lines to pay traffic tickets are brought up by at least one council member.

The projected Fiscal Year 2009 budget for the courts is $627,000. It is traditionally the smallest budget of any department of city government.

It wouldn't necessarily be part of the ballot item, but Sugarmon also has worked out a rotating schedule for the part-time judges. Two would work out of courtrooms at the Criminal Justice Center on weekdays with two sessions a day, one at 9 a.m. and the second at 1:30 p.m., which is the current schedule.

The other three or four judges would work out of satellite sites at police precincts or community centers on an every-other-day schedule with later hours to meet public demand.

"The precincts are already set up to collect the money, so it's not a problem in terms of staffing for the clerk's office. ... It would just be a matter of finding a room available at a precinct or a community center that can accommodate it," Sugarmon said, noting that all of the judges would earn less than the current $120,000 paid to each of the three full-time judges.

"You're reducing the salary. It would be the same cost. There would be no additional staffing necessary. The central office, which is the Downtown office, that secretary would handle the rotation of assignments, collection of messages, preparing any paperwork or written orders that have to go out, which are very few. But other than that, it would just be a matter of the clerk's office having sufficient staff at the precinct during the two sessions at each of those precincts on Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday."

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