ELIZABETHTON — A lawsuit filed in Chancery Court on Friday accuses Carter County Sessions Court Judge John Walton of practicing a policy or procedure that is unconstitutional and “calculated to prevent effective judicial review.”
The lawsuit was filed by Acie Lee Justus, a defendant in Walton’s court who was jailed on a contempt charge. He alleges he is one of about 50 defendants who have been similarly treated by the court. Attorney Don Spurrell is representing Justus in the lawsuit, which seeks to stop Walton from his alleged practice of jailing “targeted” defendants for several days without a hearing and finally bringing them to court to “waive” their rights to counsel and a hearing. The lawsuit seeks no monetary award from Walton other than court costs and attorney’s fees.
Spurrell describes the alleged practices of Walton in detail in the lawsuit. Spurrell said beginning in approximately July 2007, Walton began to implement a system that evolved into a procedure that is “tantamount to a judicial sham with the apparent intention to impose fear and intimidation.”
Spurrell said it begins when a “targeted” individual is late for court or leaves the courtroom while it is in session for a restroom break. While the defendant is not in the courtroom, the defendant’s name will be called, “often arbitrarily out of order,” so that the defendant can be caught out of the courtroom. When the defendant does not answer, the lawsuit said a bench warrant is issued by Walton for the defendant’s arrest, even when the defendant had told a bailiff he was briefly stepping outside the courtroom.
Spurrell said the bench warrant typically orders the defendant to be held without bond, or with a cash bond.
Spurrell said “upon information and belief, petitions for contempt, preauthorized and signed by the assistant district attorney general, at the discretion of Walton, are placed in the file and not served upon the target defendant.”
The defendant does not know what happened in his absence, Spurrell said.
When the defendant is arrested, Spurrell said the targeted defendant is not served with the petition for contempt. He said “the target defendant is not informed of his right to counsel, right to a hearing or that he faces contempt charges. Walton purposely does not conduct any arraignment or hearing to permit the subject to offer an explanation for his/her temporary absence or tardiness; Walton conducts no bond hearing.”
Spurrell said in cases where there is no bond, or when the defendant cannot make the cash bond, the typical targeted defendant spends seven to nine days in jail.
He said Walton does not allow the Sessions Court clerk’s office to put such cases on the court’s docket for a hearing and Walton keeps documents of the court sequestered from the clerk’s office and unavailable to the public.
“At the whimsey of Walton, the subject is brought down to court and is then informed that if the defendant agrees to waive their right to a hearing and plead guilty to a (still unserved) petition, that the punishment will be 10 days in jail and that thereafter the defendant will be released. The implication and reality is that the subject will not be released if they request a hearing. Upon information and belief, these proceedings are purposely not recorded.”
“The practical effect,” Spurrell said, “is to ensure that the detainee has no right of appeal and no remedy other than to sit it out and wait to be coerced into accepting a sham plea after a period of unlawful imprisonment.”
Spurrell said Justus’ experience was similar. He said his client arrived on time for court on Oct. 30. About an hour later, the defendant felt ill and went out of the courtroom to use the bathroom. When he returned 10 minutes later, Justus said he was arrested and immediately taken to jail. Later in the morning, Justus filled out a writ of habeas corpus and was released the next day by order of Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown.
Spurrell said once Walton learned of Justus’ release, Walton issued a second warrant for Justus’ arrest. This time, there was a bond set. Justus paid the bond and was released. Spurrell said no petition for contempt was served on Justus until he appeared in court on Dec. 20 with his attorney.
The lawsuit requests that Chancery Court exercise its supervisory authority over Sessions Court and issue a writ of mandamus requiring strict compliance with the law.
By coincidence, Justus was in Sessions Court on Friday with Spurrell, the day the lawsuit was filed. Clerk and Master Melissa Moreland personally came in to Sessions Court to serve the suit on Walton as he was presiding.
When Justus’ case was called, Walton recused himself. The contempt case was reset for April 22.
At the end of court, Walton was not available for comment. His bench clerk said he had not yet been able to read the suit.