VOL. 129 | NO. 88 | Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Brown’s Complex Contempt Case Moves Forward
By Bill Dries
Former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown’s actions in Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court in March will live on in court past the May county primaries and into the campaign season as Brown prepares to challenge incumbent District Attorney General Amy Weirich in the August general election.
And so far in court, Brown’s version of a Juvenile Court magistrate’s authority, or the lack of it, is taking a beating.
Juvenile Court Magistrate Harold Horne cited Brown for contempt in March. Brown claimed Horne didn’t have the authority to hear a matter and could not jail Brown for contempt, only fine him $10 for each violation. Horne said Brown’s conduct disrupted the court.
A formal order from special Criminal Court Judge Paul Summers sending the issue to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Jackson was expected no later than Tuesday, May 6. Summers’ ruling from the bench Friday, May 2, was complex and indirectly reflects some of the political realities outside the courtroom.
Brown is the Democratic nominee for district attorney general. Juvenile Court’s problems with due process, as well as reform measures it agreed to take following a scathing U.S. Justice Department report about the due process problems, are the dominant issues in the nonpartisan race for Juvenile Court judge between City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon and Chief Juvenile Court Magistrate Dan Michael.
Brown has made Juvenile Court an issue in his race as well, even before he questioned Horne’s authority to hear a matter and then to send Brown to jail for contempt.
Summers wants the Tennessee Attorney General’s office to handle the appeal, and he said the state appeals court would likely start by reviewing Brown’s bond.
On the way to the appeals court, the case goes back to Juvenile Court largely as a formality since Brown’s attorneys had already started the process of appealing the case in anticipation of not convincing Summers he could and should decide the case.
But between his ruling Friday and the case getting to the appeals court, Summers ruled he will keep jurisdiction because of the question of whether Brown remains free on bond.
“I don’t want there to be a situation that the Criminal Court has relinquished its jurisdiction and another court says … ‘We are going to put Judge Brown in jail,’” Summers said in his ruling from the bench. “He’s entitled to bond on a five-day contempt.”
Brown’s attorney, Andre Wharton, argued the contempt citation wasn’t a real court order because it was signed by Horne instead of Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person Jr.
“Magistrate Horne is not the Juvenile Court judge,” he said. “The magistrate makes findings and recommendations. The judge signs the orders.”
It’s a claim Brown has made repeatedly in campaign speeches that at times focus more on Juvenile Court than on his bid for district attorney general. He claims in order for a magistrate to act, the magistrate has to have the consent of the attorneys involved in the matter he or she is hearing.
Meanwhile, Wharton argued before Summers that Juvenile Court violated due process guarantees when it had Brown jailed without a bond hearing despite the presence of Brown’s attorneys at Juvenile Court who attempted to get a hearing on the matter but were refused.
“They weren’t just minor flaws, but fundamental flaws,” Wharton argued.
Summers didn’t rule on those points. He ruled that despite Wharton’s argument, the court of appeals is the proper place to decide the matter and that the appeal was “improvidently” filed with Criminal Court where Judge James Beasley granted bond for Brown.
Wharton agreed the contempt itself was “against the system” and also against Horne.
By arguing it was against Horne, Wharton could have argued that Juvenile Court had to recuse itself from hearing the contempt matter under state law.
Summers ruled that the issue is “direct summary contempt in the presence of the court that was of the nature of a contempt against the system.”
And he concluded that Tennessee law allows a judge to render a judgment “summarily right then to rectify that kind of conduct.”
“No hearing, no notice, no kidding,” Summers said. “In this court’s opinion, that’s what we have here.”