Judge Barry Steelman said it would be better to hire more prosecutors and public defenders than to add judges in Criminal Court.
He said, "My remarks about the 120-Day Rule were made in the context of constructive ideas I expressed regarding Commissioner (Curtis) Adams' questions and in an attempt to make the system better in which I worked as a prosecutor and now as a judge.
"My ideas expressed included those that I am currently implementing to improve the system.
"I regret that Judge Moon, and perhaps some of his colleagues, interpreted my remarks as a criticism. I will not criticize anyone who in good faith attempts to make the judicial system work more efficiently.
"However, I am concerned about any arbitrary rule that shifts responsibility for handling of cases to another court and thus results in criticism of that court by the court from which the cases were sent.
"Further, I am concerned about the comparison between Criminal Court and General Sessions Court that was made.
"There are many differences between Criminal Court and General Sessions Court. Both courts are critical to the operation of the criminal justice system.
"Criminal Court is governed by the Rules of Criminal Procedure and Criminal Court is a court of record. Jury trials are conducted in Criminal Court which require time for parties to prepare and present their cases. These things require more formality and therefore more time in Criminal Court.
"This is different from Sessions Court where there are preliminary hearings and bench trials regarding misdemeanor offenses are conducted.
"A major difference that contributes to delay is that Criminal Court judges do not have non-elected criminal defense attorneys sit as judges in our place. The district attorney's policy does not allow the trial of cases to be conducted in front of these non-elected 'judges.' I am unsure the degree to which this scenario, which occurs with a great deal of regularity, extends the present 120-Day Rule.
"I want to thank Commissioner Adams for his sensitivity to our needs in Criminal Court reflected by his offer to add judges. However, having serving as a prosecutor for 11 and a half years and as an attorney for 17 years, I understand that cases are resolved by plea agreement or by trial. Lawyers are needed to reach these agreements and/or try these cases.
"Rather than merely opening another venue for cases to be called on a docket by a new judge and still left unresolved, a more efficient use of resources would be to hire more prosecutors and public defenders."
General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon responded, "Some people are confused about the operations and procedures of the General Sessions Court. At no time does a non-elected defense attorney conduct trials in our court when sitting as a special judge. We do ask duly elected judges to sit in our place and conduct trials with the approval of the district attorney general when necessary.
"General Sessions Judges do not have the luxury of closing our courts down for a week or longer during the year or during holidays. Defendants in our court have a right to a hearing within 10 days if they cannot make bond.
"The General Sessions Court is also governed by the Criminal Rules of Procedure and our courts must remain open almost daily to provide these defendants with a hearing as the rules require.
"We recognized in 2000 that our court was on a collision course of thousands of backlogged cases if we did not act. We did act; we did reorganize and we restructured our court to include an afternoon arraignment docket and the implementation of the 120-Day Rule. We did not point fingers, make excuses or assess fault nor make comparisons. We simply worked together and found solutions. As a result, we have no backlog of cases and there will be no backlog of cases in the General Sessions Court."
Judge Moon also said, "In all due respect, Judge Steelman was an administrative assistant much of his tenure in the office of the district attorney general. He tried very few cases in the General Sessions Court on any regular basis. Therefore, by his public questions and criticism of the court, it is evident that he has several erroneous misconceptions about the processes and procedures of our court.
"Occasionally, as in any court, we ask attorneys to sit for us in our absence. However, we always attempt to obtain a duly-elected judge with full authority to try cases to sit for us. We, along with the district attorney general, do not permit non-duly-elected judges to try cases in our court.
"In conjunction with the 50,000-plus cases docketed in our court, we have more than 17,000 civil cases and hundreds of mental health hearings that we have to conduct. We reorganized our civil docket also, and our civil cases are now heard in Hamilton County as quickly or quicker than any other major metropolitan city in Tennessee.
"In the final analysis, when those who continue to point fingers and seek 'scapegoats' for their dilemma, the Hamilton County Criminal Court will still have 11,380 backlog of cases. We found the right solutions to the backlog of 35,000 cases that were removed from the Chattanooga City Court to the Hamilton County General Sessions Court in the mid-90's. Then-Attorney General Gary Gerbitz removed all state cases to the Sessions Court due to a mid term pay raise of then-City Court Judge Walter Williams.
"When those 35,000 cases were removed to Sessions Court in one day, we did not point fingers, make comparisons, publish misconceptions or assert fault. We simply worked from daylight to dark to solve the problem. We dug ourselves out of a hole and immediately made those necessary and responsible procedural changes to remain 'backlog free.'
"In short, the Criminal Court judges have a serious backlog dilemma and they need to fix it. The problem cannot be resolved with pointed fingers and high-profile press releases. The public judicial dialogue should end today, and the work should get started immediately to resolve the backlog."