Local attorneys, judges, court clerks and others who work in the judicial system Friday morning met with State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver and State Senator Mae Beavers during a town hall meeting urging them to vote against a proposed judicial redistricting plan that would make DeKalb County part of a new eight county district.
"We don't think there is a problem," said General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Bratten Cook, II who is president of the DeKalb County Bar.
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The proposal to move DeKalb County from the current makeup of the 13th Judicial District to a new district is among options being considered by the Republican leadership in the Tennessee General Assembly, particularly Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey. But both State Representative Weaver and State Senator Beavers said they don't know yet what the final proposal will be for lawmakers to consider. "I've not heard from Mr. Ramsey yet. I've asked for an appointment but I haven't gotten one yet," said Representative Weaver. "I'm still pursing that. But as soon as I sit down and listen to the story then I will consider both sides and get back with you and give you my decision. But right now I'm not for it," she said.
"I'm very concerned about access to justice," said Representative Weaver. "I am also concerned about the children of this state. I'm concerned about what happens to kids in child cases and if
redistricting is going to destroy those relationships. That's my priority. Because for some kids these caseworkers is all they have," said Representative Weaver.
Judge Cook said while judicial redistricting has not occurred in nearly thirty years, judgeships have been created across the state to meet needs in specific areas. "I just got back this week from our General Sessions Judges Conference in Nashville where Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court Gary Wade explained that under the current system and the way we do it now based on weighted caseload, if there is a particular area that needs a new judge then that's where the judge goes. He said since 1984 there has been 31 new judgeships created to fill those spots across the state that need it without having to go in and start carving up districts. That has worked well. Plus, the legislature paid about $250,000 to get a study done just four years ago that says the way we're doing it now is working fine," said Judge Cook.
In addition to the fact that it is not needed, Judge Cook said redistricting could create more hardship in terms of travel for litigants. The proposed new district would stretch from Macon County to Coffee County. "The farthest we have to drive right now is Livingston. I can be there in 55 minutes. " I hardly ever have to though because the judges come to DeKalb County often enough that we don't have to go there. But look at the litigants who would have to drive from Macon or Trousdale County almost all the way to Alabama and there is no easy way to get there," said Judge Cook.
Representative Weaver said a judge from another district recently expressed to her support for redistricting suggesting it might get more prisoners through the system quicker and save the state money. Judge David Patterson disputed that claim. "Public defenders, judges, and district attorneys move cases along as quickly as they can. It cannot be done any quicker by redistricting. It will not make things happen faster," he said.
"One of the things that has concerned all of us is the way this has been handled," said attorney Hilton Conger. "Nobody heard about it. I think it was leaked out about three months ago. You (Weaver) have not even seen a fiscal note on it," said Conger.
Since the proposal was revealed, Lieutenant Governor Ramsey has requested input from others on alternative redistricting plans, but Conger asked why submit a plan when none is needed? "When he says we want to see what your plan is, our plan is leave it just like it is. The Lieutenant Governor had said I want input by today (March 1). Now he has moved it up to next Friday. He says send me a proposal. Our concern is if we don't propose something, it may be taken as acquiescence in his plan. We don't think there is a problem so the message we need from you as our representative to get to him (Lieutenant Governor) is just because you haven't heard from these folks presenting some plan doesn't mean they are in favor of your plan because we are not," said Conger.
Representative Weaver and Senator Beavers said they understand the concerns of the legal community and will express them to the Lieutenant Governor and the sponsors of the Judicial redistricting legislation. "We have to look at the big picture. We haven't really seen the bill yet. We haven't heard all the pros and cons. We've heard some pros and cons from the locals here in DeKalb County today. We will take everything into consideration before we vote to make sure we cast our vote the right way," said Senator Beavers.