Fix On The Horizon For Overcrowded Courtroom
by Adam Ghassemi
GALLATIN, Tenn. – A mid-state courtroom is constantly packed with as many as 400 cases on the docket, but a coming change could soon ease the problem.
You may expect long lines, security screenings and cramped seating when flying, but those hassles are exactly what people in Sumner County deal with every time they have to go to General Sessions Court.
"Everybody that has any room slide down," a court employee told the packed courtroom of victims, witnesses and defendants.
Wednesday was a typical docket for Judge James Hunter. He's the only General Sessions Judge and heard more than 400 cases, which can sometimes last into the night.
"I think last year we did real close to 30,000 cases. Some years we've done over 30,000 cases," Hunter said.
There are so many people, the courtroom doors have to be left open just so people spilling out into the lobby can hear when Hunter calls their case.
It can take 3 months just to get a preliminary hearing, meaning defendants may have to sit in jail and cost the county time and money.
"If victims are waiting to get into court and defendants are in jail and can't be brought to trial that is not a good situation," said Sumner Co. District Attorney General Ray Whitley.
The case load means attorneys and officers have to stay here almost all day.
"The longer that the officer is staying in the courtroom that's taking him off the street," said Hendersonville Police Detective Sergeant Jim Vaughn.
Vaughn also serves on the Sumner County Commission, which recently voted to add a second General Sessions judge.
That's an expense many have said is an absolutely necessity as the court struggles to keep up with the growing population and case load that never seems to end.
"It's just something a county of our size should have," Hunter said. "It will relieve the stress of having so many people in one courtroom at one time."
The Sumner County Commission is waiting on approval from the Tennessee legislature. That could only take a couple of weeks, according to Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown. The Commission would then have to approve the additional judge for a second time before finding the estimated $400,000-$700,000 per year to pay for a new judge and support staff.
Other suburban counties, like Williamson, Rutherford and Wilson, all have multiple General Sessions Court judges.