Jellico courts remain in limbo

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By Charlotte Underwood

Jellico is drawing ever closer to finally establishing a municipal court system after going for nearly two years without one.

A recent decision made by the state court of appeals has cleared the way for the town to reestablish its court system. The Jellico Mayor and Aldermen met Monday night to set a judge’s salary and continue the process towards establishing the court.

“We can’t hire anyone until we set a salary,” said Mayor Forster Baird.

Baird suggested considering what Jacksboro, Caryville and LaFollete’s municipal judges were paid. The average was $7,100 a year.

Board members Alvin Evans and Darrel Byrge, along with Vice Mayor Mike Johnson thought the salary was too low.

“Caryville, Jacksboro and LaFollette only hold court once a month, while we want to meet a minimum of two,” Johnson pointed out.

Other board members agreed and the salary was set at $1,000 a month with court being held a minimum of twice, and a maximum of four times a month.

After the salary was set, talk turned towards actually hiring one of the five applicants.

Johnson brought before the board a copy of laws that he said stated a lawyer could not be a judge and continue practicing law at the same time, according to 1858 Tennessee Code Annotated. If true, this would knock four of the five applicants out of the running.

Town Recorder Linda Douglas said she had spoken to town attorney Terry Basista about the matter, and according to him, Johnson had misinterpreted the law.

The stipulation only applied to the court of records and that a municipal judge could practice law and act as judge at the same time.

According to the Tennessee Code Annotated, a municipal judge can practice law because the position is not a full time position. Only if a judge is full- time, such as circuit court, chancery court or criminal court can there be stipulations against practicing law. Even general sessions judges can practice law, as long as they are not full- time. Whether or not they are full- time is based on a county or city’s population, according to the Tennessee Code Annotated.

“But this says in any of the courts of this state,” Johnson argued. He asked if the charter stated the judge had to be a lawyer.

“It says preference shall be given to a practicing lawyer,” answered the mayor.

“Elizabeth Asbury is a judge and she practices law,” pointed out Evans. He asked why the town had an attorney if they weren’t going to listen to him.

“I don’t think it would hurt to get an attorney general’s ruling on this, because I’m not going to violate state law; I don’t care what any attorney says. I’m just quoting state law,” said Johnson firmly.

“Then it will be even longer before we get a court established,” said Evans.

“We’ve waited this long,” Johnson replied.

Despite these possible holdups, the mayor said he expects everything should be completed in the next two weeks and the first session of court will follow soon after.

“As long as we get this thing in place by the middle of May, we’ll be all right,” said Baird.

The second reading of the salary ordinance will be held on May 5 at 5p.m., at the town hall. At that time, the mayor and board plan to tie up any loose ends in regards to the court system and hopefully make a decision about hiring a judge, according to Baird.

The mayor also asked to reappoint Jackie Richardson as town clerk. Evans pointed out that according to the charter, Douglas was also the clerk, unless she declined the position. Douglas formally declined, saying she had too many duties as town recorder to take on the additional duties as clerk. The board voted to unanimously reappoint Richardson as town clerk.