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VOL. 125 | NO. 11 | Monday, January 18, 2010

Steady Clip for Court Cases in ’09

By Bill Dries

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Civil court filings for 2009 were higher than the previous two years, according to data from The Daily News Online.

The year-end data for Circuit, Chancery and Probate courts showed 10,794 cases were filed in 2009 compared to 9,766 in 2008 and 10,045 in 2007.

Figures for the civil divisions of General Sessions Court are not included in the data.

Divorces with and without children remained the largest category of cases filed in Circuit and Chancery courts. Wills were the largest category in Probate Court.

The year-end figures also reflected a rise in the filing of hospital liens in Circuit Court. The rise was first noted in third-quarter 2009 figures for the nine divisions.

The 910 hospital liens filed in 2009 were the third-highest category of filings for the year after claims for auto accidents. By contrast, the 2008 figures for Circuit Court showed divorces as the leading category, followed by auto accident claims. Breach of contract lawsuits comprised the third highest category.

Breach of contract lawsuits were the second-highest category for 2009 in the three divisions of Chancery Court, followed by adoptions. Adoptions were the secondhighest category in 2008 followed by breach of contract suits.

Faces of the law

The year saw changes in some of the faces on the bench as well as a change in the way they came there.

Circuit Court Division 4 Judge Rita Stotts and General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Anthony Johnson died on the same day last January. Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey resigned in Division 8 in September to return to work as an attorney.

Bailey’s vacancy was the first in the state to happen under new rules for the Judicial Nominating Commission, formerly known as the Judicial Selection Commission.

The Tennessee Legislature overhauled the makeup of the commission and how many members are appointed by legislative leaders.

Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed Lorrie Ridder to Stotts’ Circuit Court position. At press time, the governor was still weighing a list of three finalists for Bailey’s vacant position.

Retired Circuit Court Judge Charles McPherson, who served before Ridder’s appointment in Division 4, is now serving in Division 8.

The Shelby County Commission appointed Lee Wilson to Johnson’s position.

In interviewing candidates, several commissioners pushed for commitments from those applying to adopt a domestic violence docket for the division. Wilson began hearing such a docket several months after taking office.

Cases behind and beyond

At year’s end, city and county governments went ahead with plans to sue a national mortgage lender for alleged discriminatory practices in mortgages.

The defendant is Wells Fargo and the corporation’s attorneys have denied any wrongdoing. The year ahead promises to be interesting, because days after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court here, a judge in Baltimore tossed that city’s lawsuit alleging the same general practices.

The judge there left the door open to an amended lawsuit with a narrower scope. A similar lawsuit in Birmingham, Ala., was dismissed earlier in 2009.

Among the criminal court cases expected to go to trial in 2010 after a year of motions, discovery and other preparations in 2009 is the murder trial of Jessie L. Dotson, accused of the March 2008 murders of six people, including his brother and two children in Binghampton – the worst mass murder in modern Memphis history.

Dotson’s trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 8 before Judge James Beasley.

Trial is also scheduled to begin later in April before Criminal Court Judge W. Otis Higgs in the fraud case against Clayton Smart, co-owner of the Forest Hill funeral homes.

He and two others are accused of stealing $20 million from Forest Hill burial policy trust funds. Smart, who is from Oklahoma, has been in jail since April 2007 because he can’t pay his $500,000 bond.

Even if Smart were to make bond, he would face contempt citations in Chancery Court, where civil lawsuits filed by the state and others are also pending.

The legal community also marked two significant milestones in 2009. The Shelby County Courthouse celebrated its 100th anniversary in October. And just before Christmas, faculty members began moving into the new Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Downtown.

The new law school revives the nearly 130-year-old U.S. Customs House on Front Street at Madison Avenue as a part of the legal community. From 1884 to 1963, the building had been the site of the federal courts for the Western District of Tennessee.

PROPERTY SALES 36 154 6,546
MORTGAGES 34 94 4,129
BANKRUPTCIES 43 126 3,396