1st Judicial Distric judge claims redistricting would cost state $700K

Becky Campbell • Feb 18, 2013 at 12:04 PM

A proposed redistricting plan to pull three counties from the 1st Judicial District into its own region could cost the state more than $700,000 a year and destroy a system that doesn’t need fixing, according to one local judge adamantly opposed to the suggestion.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Seeley Jr. outlined his opinion about the plan in a letter he’s written to state lawmakers.

The proposal would leave Washington County as a stand-alone district while the three smaller counties — Carter, Unicoi and Johnson — would remain together.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said last week in a Nashville news conference that now is the time to begin redistricting discussions and he hopes to have a proposal in place by early March.

Seeley and other local judicial officials, including District Attorney General Tony Clark, said the early proposals they’ve heard about would break up the 1st Judicial District, comprised of Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Johnson counties.

“It may well be that some districts need to be changed, but the First Judicial District has worked fine as it is for the 28 years that I have been a circuit judge and it is certainly going to cost the state quite a bit yearly to separate our district,” Seeley wrote in the letter, which he provided to the Johnson City Press.

Seeley also talked about issues with facilities in each of the counties, and he “conservatively estimated” what the separation would cost based on his assumption Washington County would have three judges while the Carter-Unicoi-Johnson district would have two judges.

Currently there are two circuit court judges — Seeley and Judge Jean Stanley — who hear civil matters, two criminal court judges — Judge Lynn Brown and Judge Robert Cupp — and Chancellor Richard Johnson.

But it isn’t just judges the redistricting would affect. There would also have to be an elected district attorney general and public defender. Clark was living in Unicoi County when elected, but now also resides in Washington County and Jeff Kelly, the public defender, lives in Carter County.

“The ‘one-size fits all’ formula proposed would not be beneficial in our district. Some other facts to be considered are that Washington County, the largest county in the present district, has not been dominated by these offices,” Seeley wrote in letter.

Clark said one reason state lawmakers want to push for the redistricting now is because the next judicial election is in August 2014. Judges, DA’s and public defenders are elected for eight-year terms.

Facilities will also be a problem for the two separate districts, Seeley wrote.

“The courthouses in Johnson, Carter and Unicoi counties and the Justice Center in Carter County do not have space for the two new (proposed) judges and their assistants nor for offices of the district attorney general and public defender. The state or counties will have to acquire rental space for the judges, the district attorney general, public defender and their staffs,” he wrote.

Washington County’s new justice center, which opened in late 2011, provides a dedicated courtroom for each judge as well as ample office space for them and their staff. Clark’s office is also in the justice center, although the size is hardly adequate for his large staff, he said.

In an interview last week, Clark said he isn’t sure the plan is good for the 1st District.

“My district has a huge caseload, and Washington County, by far, has the most cases. You’re dealing with 12 different law enforcement agencies. It’s worked so far, and this is the way it’s been for 20-some years.

“Making such a drastic change like splitting this district up, there are so many questions,” Clark said. “I would like some type of plan, to see what the proposed plan is and see how it would benefit the people.”

In closing his letter, Seeley said he and other 1st District judicial officials are open to meeting with legislators to discuss the issue.

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