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The Tennessee Conservative [By Paula Gomes] –
A proposed bill aims to increase the authority of unelected magistrates to rule on substantive constitutional rights of parents and children within the juvenile court system.
House Bill 1186 (HB1186) sponsored by Representative Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville-District 45) and companion Senate Bill 0400 (SB0400) sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin-District 18) turns the state’s elected Juvenile Court Judges “into mere administrators” says a source who spoke to The Tennessee Conservative about the bill.
Unless you are familiar with the workings of the Juvenile Court, you might think its job mainly involves finger wagging at unruly teenagers, telling them to go to school, and mind their parents. But behind the doors of these confidential closed courts, children are handed over to the State of Tennessee where they might find themselves shipped off to other states, parental rights are terminated, and children are criminalized for such slight offenses as joy riding in their parent’s car.
The juvenile court structure, even in the largest cities, is controlled by one judge who has the ability to hire magistrates. These magistrates are not elected, but mere employees of the court and work at the pleasure of the judge.
In the largest metropolitan arenas, the landscape looks like this: Metro Nashville/Davidson County: Judge Sheila Calloway, with nine magistrates; Shelby County: Judge Tarik B. Sugarmon, with seven magistrates; Knox County Judge Tim Irwin, with four magistrates; and Hamilton County, Judge Robert Philyaw, with three magistrates.
Under current law, the ruling of the magistrate may be appealed to the judge where the citizen is entitled to a new trial before the judge. This is called a “de novo” hearing, meaning brand new. The ruling of the magistrate carries no weight with the judge. However, according to our source, the Judge has access to these rulings, and to believe there is no influence over the judge’s decision is naive.
Under the proposed law, the magistrate’s ruling would carry more weight and influence over the judge should the citizens seek an appeal from a magistrate’s ruling. A request for review would include written exceptions to the magistrate’s findings, conclusions, or recommendations, and specify the findings to which the party objects, the grounds for the objection, and the party’s proposed findings, conclusions, or recommendations. And the magistrate’s findings, conclusions, and recommendations would be afforded “a presumption of correctness.” This means that the burden of proof would be shifted to the parent seeking a review.
The Juvenile Court system is the only judicial system in Tennessee that utilizes magistrates to sit in judgment and enter final orders of adjudication. While the Juvenile Court system needs reorganization, turning an elected judge into an administrator is not the answer, said our source. “Citizens have a right to have their cases heard before an elected official who is responsible to the voters and not just themselves.”
This is not the first time this revision has been proposed. Disgraced Judge Donna Davenport of Rutherford County requested this change years ago.
In 2014, Attorney W. Ray Glasgow filed a lawsuit in Shelby County against the judge, magistrates, and administrators of the juvenile court, in part, because he claimed that citizens had a due process right to have their cases heard before an elected official. The lawsuit attacked the long standing practice of having magistrates hear the cases without review.
This law will soon be docketed in the House criminal justice committee. Our source said, “This bill should die and the issue should go to summer study.”
Contact information for the main bill sponsors:
Rep. Johnny Garrett (R) – firstname.lastname@example.org – 615-741-3893
Sen. Ferrell Haille (R) – email@example.com – 615-741-1999
About the Author: Paula Gomes is a Tennessee resident and reporter for The Tennessee Conservative. You can reach Paula at firstname.lastname@example.org.