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VOL. 123 | NO. 62 | Friday, March 28, 2008

Family Court Plan Spotlights Pilot Debate

By Bill Dries

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MAYBE SOMEDAY: "It's an intriguing concept," Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts, center, said this week of the idea of a pilot project in which a Juvenile Court referee would take on the cases of 100 families. The "one family-one judge" approach is one recommendation of the Family Court task force Stotts chaired. The idea faces stiff resistance. -- Photo By Bill Dries

A family court task force set up by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners completed its work this week with a set of recommendations that call for more of a connection between the courts that deal with families in crisis and social services agencies. The report goes to the commission for further consideration.

At its final meeting Wednesday, the task force members also approved some more ambitious recommendations that face an uncertain political future.

Among those is the idea of a pilot program in which one Juvenile Court referee would take on the combined cases of 100 families for a certain trial period. It is the concept of "one family-one judge" in which a judge takes jurisdiction over the various cases involving the same family. The task force of attorneys, judges and family social services providers were split on the issue, with more voting for the recommendation than against.

But Juvenile Court referee Dan Michael said his boss, Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person, ultimately will have the final word - and it won't be yes.

"My opposition is philosophical. It is based on my experience," Michael said. "The judge that I work for has the same philosophy I do. So you can pass the motion above my objections, but you're going to have to have his cooperation. ... You may pass the motion, but I can tell you until you change his philosophy, he's not going to do it."

"I think that we are now recognizing that we have these people who are legally trained and they are judicial officers. So, let's utilize them to make this system work more efficiently
if we can do so."

- Rita Stotts
Circuit Court Judge

No way, José

Circuit Court Judge Rita Stotts, who chaired the task force, also voted no. She as well as Michael had concerns early in the task force discussions about maintaining the objectivity of a judge who sees the same family repeatedly for numerous legal problems.

"He doesn't have to do this unless he's agreeable to doing it," Stotts said of Person after the meeting. "The Circuit and Chancery Court judges are state court employees. They can't be told what to do by the County Commission. It would require somebody agreeing to participate in this pilot project. That's not to say that there's not a judge that might be willing to do that with the proper training. It's an intriguing concept."

It is also the top recommendation in a report by the National Center for State Courts for the County Commission last year on reforming local Juvenile Court. The commission's move to appoint a second and possibly more Juvenile Court judges prompted the NCSC report as well as a lawsuit by Person that is now pending in the state Court of Appeals. Chancellor Kenny Armstrong ruled last year the commission has the authority to create a second judge's position.

Original intent

The task force quibbled over a part of its draft report that referred to a "fragmented court structure." It is a condition noted in the County Commission's ad hoc committee report on the juvenile justice system in Shelby County.

County Commissioner Mike Carpenter argued that it was an accurate portrayal of the barriers faced by victims of domestic violence, plus other family-related legal problems.

"If we're going to veer from that, it's what we came here for in the first place," Carpenter said.

Proponents of "one family-one judge" argue it prevents families from falling through the cracks of a court system in which different judges and courts will deal with the immediate without knowing underlying causes.

But Stotts countered that what seems fragmented also is the result of the way the courts are structured by law, not how the courts are run by particular individuals.

"There is a lot of history to how we ended up with the current court structure," she told The Daily News after the meeting. "This is a matter of state statute and Constitution. ... I think a lot of this is the understanding of the need and the how to. If I show up at work Monday and I'm the designated judge to do this, what does my courtroom now look like? Do I have a social worker sitting over in the corner? Do I have a playroom in the backroom?"

One-stop shopping

While the task force hit the jurisdictional lines that divide civil and criminal courts with some amount of force, another recommendation seems more likely and more immediate. It involves using judicial commissioners and divorce referees to issue both temporary child support and protection orders at the same time.

"I think that we are now recognizing that we have these people who are legally trained and they are judicial officers," Stotts said. "So, let's utilize them to make this system work more efficiently if we can do so."

But there are also legal issues about how far the jurisdiction of the commissioners and referees may extend. It's been litigated in the recent past all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Using the positions for what is called "one-stop shopping" on the two kinds of orders also depends on a pending legal opinion from the county attorney's office.

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