Community leaders speak out on monitoring the wheels of justice in Shelby County

Published: Jun. 2, 2023 at 10:55 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Getting the wheels of justice to speed in Shelby County. A local lawmaker, criminal justice advocate and the district attorney all say it’s up to the judges to get the criminal courts in Memphis moving again.

Shelby County’s criminal court judges were elected to office last August. If voters don’t like how judges are doing the job, they can always vote them out. But judges are elected to eight-year terms, which is a long time to wait if the criminal justice system is not a well-oiled machine.

Shelby County Commissioner Mick Wright expressed his frustration with the slow pace of trials taking place, by showing courtrooms at 201 Poplar locked up tight by 3:40 in the afternoon. He went door to door, finding all of them locked up tight.”With the number of charges that are happening, the number of trials we need to get through,” Wright told Action News 5, “why is this place not buzzing with activity right now?”

General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Bill Anderson said judges work until their dockets are clear. Dockets, he said, are set up by their clerks.”Typical day is if you don’t have any trials set, or they fall through, or you don’t have a lot of preliminary hearings set or they fall through,” said Judge Anderson, “a typical day is usually 1:30 or 2 o’clock, starting at 9 ‘o’clock. So, 9 to 2.”

Anderson is one of nine judges in General Sessions Criminal Court. 10 more judges handle cases inside Shelby County Criminal Courtrooms in Tennessee’s 30th Judicial District. Data from the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office shows the 10 criminal court judges held just 35 trials last year...Down from 113 trials in 2018.

Yonée Gibson, a court watcher for criminal justice reform group Just City, told Action News 5 in January the slow wheels of justice can only be partially blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.” Call me hopeful, call me naive, I think everything can be fixed, but it starts with the people who are in charge, who know they’re in charge and it starts with our judges,” said Gibson. Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said he added more assistant DA’s to help speed up court cases, but ultimately the power to speed up the process rests in someone else’s hands.” At the end of the day, the backlog is regrettable and it’s going to be the judges, I think, who are the people who are the most able to address it,” said Mulroy.

Judge Anderson, who holds Veteran’s Court every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., said judges have many responsibilities in addition to holding trials.

“We do our jobs. We do everything on our docket, every single day,” he said, “my doors are open every single day. I encourage people to come down and sit in the courtroom and see how we do business. I encourage them to do that.”

Judge Anderson is the lead judge of the nine General Sessions judges. Judge Chris Craft is the administrator of the 10 criminal court judges, though there are only nine right now, because Judge Melissa Boyd is on medical leave, having held no trials since her election last August.

Commissioner Wright is sponsoring a resolution to ask circuit court judges to help hold criminal trials and out-of-town DA’s to help prosecute more cases. He’d also like to see trials scheduled to start mid-week.

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