Carter County judge changes course on public records

John Thompson • Feb 11, 2013 at 10:29 PM

ELIZABETHTON — The public’s access to warrants and other papers for the Sessions Court appeared to be back to normal in Carter County on Monday, after three days of confusion and controversy over the policy to release public records. Calm was restored after Judge John Walton rescinded his Feb. 6 order that instructed the sheriff to route all the paperwork for his courts to his bench clerk and to no one else. The order resulted in a protest from attorney Don Spurrell that Walton was violating the Tennessee Opens Records Law.

The controversy was worked out late Friday through the efforts of Carter County Attorney Keith Bowers, who met with the judge and issued his own opinion on the judge’s order. As a result, Walton issued a new general order on Monday.

“This general order of the court rescinds and hereby vacates the order of the court dated Feb. 6, 2013,” Walton wrote in his newest order. The five paragraph order explained the judge’s intent in issuing the Feb. 6 order.

As a test of the impact of the latest order, the Johnson City Press requested warrants from the Circuit Court Clerk’s office that had been written over the weekend by the sheriff’s department and every warrant requested was provided without delay. Spurrell said last week he had been denied a request for court papers because of the directions of the Feb. 6 order. His request had been by telephone. On Monday Sheriff Chris Mathes said no one had filed a request for public records with his department during the controversy, but he said if there had been a formal request for a public document it would have been provided to the public.

Walton explained in Monday’s new order that his first order was for the internal distribution of the court papers. He said he issued the order because of a change in policy at the Circuit Court Clerk’s office had resulted in delays in getting the warrants to his bench clerk. Walton said it is a situation “which the (Circuit Court) clerk has assured the court will be rectified as soon as possible.”

Walton said his earlier order “was intended to ensure the constitutional rights of all defendants before the court were protected.” He said “it was intended to be applicable to the initial return of all documents to ensure every defendant would be placed on the next available docket. This would allow their initial hearing to be conducted as soon as possible and to provide the individual defendant with the quickest access to an impartial, just, fair and speedy hearing, and to provide more accountability to the process.”

In his new order, Walton denied the contention made by Spurrell in a petition filed in Chancery Court that the Feb. 6 order was “clearly illegal” under the Open Records Act. Walton said he denied the Feb. 6 order “violated any constitutionally protected rights or statutes of the great state of Tennessee or of the United States of America. If said general order did infringe on any rights or statutes, it was certainly not the intent of the court.”

“I am very happy for the great state of Tennessee,” Spurrell said after he received Walton’s order. He said “at this point, I will probably dismiss the lawsuit, but I think the judge should pay the costs.”

Spurrell said last week’s controversy “was just a diversion from the real issue.”

He was referring to a lawsuit he had filed against Walton in Chancery Court a month ago. That lawsuit contends the judge had developed a practice of jailing “targeted” individuals without a hearing for several days and then bringing them to court to “waive” their rights.

Both of the lawsuits were the subject of an order of recusal filed in Chancery Court at about the same time Walton issued his order on Monday.

The order, signed by Jean Stanley, who is the presiding judge of the First Judicial District, said that Chancellor Richard Johnson and Circuit Court Judges Thomas Seeley Jr. and Stanley, have a conflict of interest in the cases and have recused themselves from hearing any further matters in the two cases.

As presiding judge in the district, Stanley said she would refer the case to the Administrative Office of the Courts to find a judge “to preside over the matter to its conclusion.”

Bowers said he would continue to work on a resolution of the matter between Walton’s court and the Circuit Court Clerk’s office. He said he would continue to hold talks with both Walton and Clerk John Paul Mathes until the problems have been worked out.

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