Justices say no court for Jellico

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By Susan Sharp

After an appeals court ruling issued Monday, Jellico citizens will still have drive across the mountain for their day in court.

The Tennessee Appeals Court sided with Circuit Court Judge John McAfee’s 2007 ruling that said the town’s court had not been properly established.

At the time of McAfee’s ruling, then Jellico Judge Don Moses had filed suit against the town when the mayor and board aldermen sought to dispose of the court and his position. While most city judges hear cases related to violations of city ordinances, Moses was acting in a general sessions capacity hearing cases that related to state law.

Moses became the Jellico city judge in 2006 after running in an unopposed election. The salary that came with the job was 75-% of the county’s general sessions judgeship or nearly $80,000.

The appellate court opinion said in 2002 Jellico sought to have its charter restructured through the state’s General Assembly. In that private act the provision allowing the town to establish a city judge with jurisdictional powers was included.

However, as the justices reviewed the case, they determined this could not happen. The state’s lawmaking body can’t hand over the power to establish courts as provided in the 2002 private act, the opinion said.

Constitutional authority, such as that held by the Tennessee General Assembly, pertaining to the creation of lower courts can’t be allocated to a municipality, Special Judge Sharon Lee wrote. Instead that power must be carried out by the legislation, Lee continued.

In other words, when town officials moved to institute a court of its own, it held no power to do so, the court ruled.

While the court, as it was created in the 2002 private act, will remain dormant, rulings made by Moses will stand.

At a previous lower court hearing Michael Hatmaker, who represented Moses, had argued the city court could generate $300,000 to $500,000 in revenue for Jellico.

Hatmaker also suggested that because the composition of the council had changed between the time Moses was elected and the move to change the court began, that could have been a driving force behind the move to put Moses out of the judgeship.

Moses previously testified a 6 to 0 vote by the town’s board in the spring of 2006 had sealed the salary for the position.

But when three of the council members were unseated in November 2006, things changed, according to Hatmaker.