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"This man has been in court before. I hope he realizes it's a different judge," Judge Carol Soloman says. "Judge Shipley doesn't like to put people in jail."
It is only five minutes into the defendant's contempt hearing this June day, and the judge has yet to hear any testimony in his case. Yet the implication is obvious: The man in front of Soloman — a dead ringer for Stone Cold Steve Austin (which he can't help) who's tens of thousands of dollars behind on child support (which maybe he can) — is already headed behind bars. The judge takes a sip from a blue coffee mug, incongruously emblazoned with a peace sign.
Looking out over the courtroom, Soloman gives off an air of barely contained intensity. She is stocky and compact in her flowing judicial robes, and her fiery red hair sometimes creates the mental image of a lit powderkeg. Even so, she is quick to laugh and laughs loudly, which can be disconcerting in these surroundings.
It is 11:20 in the morning, and already sprawling before the bench is the emotional tar pit that is family court. Every day, hundreds of people file into the Metro Courthouse through first-floor security, then take the elevator up to Soloman's courtroom on 6. There they make their way past court officer Wayne Batey, who scans everyone for even the smallest violation of decorum. An untucked shirt will get visitors sent out of the courtroom as effectively as a weapon.
Once inside, for the first hour or so, it's bedlam. There are thousands of divorce and custody cases in Davidson County, the vast bulk of them heard by Soloman or Judge Phil Smith at the other end of the hall. Each involves as few as a dozen or as many as several hundred motions, petitions or filings. By this late in the morning, it's Third Call, reserved for the type of family tragedy that must be carefully picked apart, piece by excruciating piece.
Soloman urges people to work these sad transactions out among themselves. "People who settle always do better than anything I'm going to decide," she explained at an earlier hearing to a couple considering a mutual divorce settlement. "I see people for five minutes, and I'm making decisions about their lives."
But many of the cases before her today are contempt hearings. To get to this point, at least one of the parties has allegedly flouted a court order. That forces Soloman to act as a sort of a state-sanctioned parent — handing out punishments, adjusting allowances, and forcing endlessly bickering adults to at least pretend to get along.
Take the first case before her. The plaintiff's wife is absent today. The couple divorced last year. The mother was given custody of the kids, which she wanted — until she decided to move to Italy with no forwarding address, in order to (as her husband's lawyer puts it) "find herself or whatever."
That he probably didn't mind, except for two things. One, she transferred the kids into his care but allegedly had not been paying her child support. And two, some time after the move, he found out she was pregnant. And that she miscarried. Now she only calls her children sporadically.
What's more, she has been home to visit exactly once, a few weeks ago for her kid's First Holy Communion. Oh, and that trip had to be cut short, his lawyer casually informs the court, because "she had to return to Italy for criminal proceedings over the death of her [unborn] child."
No further details are provided. The judge is all reassurance.
"The next time a woman tells you they need a little space and time to get themselves together, don't believe 'em," Soloman tells the plaintiff, laughing.
Next up is a domestic defendant who has opted not to show up today because his primary lawyer is out of town. This time Soloman is not amused.
"Where is your client?" she says, sternly, to his replacement lawyer. "He chose not to show up? On a show cause [hearing] he chose not to show up?"
The replacement lawyer, visibly longing for a meteor strike or a bomb threat, braces himself for the worst. "Before your honor makes a ruling," he says, timidly, "let me say something —"
"I'm not making my ruling!"
"Let me just tell you why things are the way they are," the lawyer says. He proceeds to try to do that, to no avail. It seems his client, on top of not coming today, has also chosen not to go to a court-ordered drug test. His lawyer says his client had a right to a hearing before the drug test.
Soloman shoots that down quickly. If he wanted to argue that, she says, he should have shown up in court. She suggests issuing a body attachment bond, a court order instructing police arrest to assure his appearance in court. He will have to pay the full amount of the bond — or 10 percent to a bonding company — in order to get out of jail. The court keeps that money until the trial's end. If he fails to show up, he loses it all.
"How much would you like the bond to be?" Soloman says, leaning back in her chair, arms crossed. She comes up with a nice round figure: $50,000.
"I think [my client] is a little scared of you," says the attorney, attempting to lighten the mood.
"I'd be scared of me, too." Soloman says. "That's a joke."
Autumn Catlett, for one, wouldn't laugh. She's been in the process of getting divorced from her husband of 15 years since March 2010. As of May this year, she was nearly broke and on her fourth lawyer. She estimates her legal expenses add up to more than $20,000.
Soloman granted primary custody of the couple's 11-year-old son Canaan to her estranged husband, John Wesley Catlett. Autumn was concerned about allowing Canaan to be in John's custody. And while, on at least one occasion, she acted irresponsibly because of it, it would be difficult to accuse her of being paranoid.
John Wesley Catlett has a rap sheet that included arrests for assault, as well as accusations of stalking and harassment. Autumn had previously filed two orders of protection against him, in Soloman's court. As of this writing, he is facing possible charges in two criminal cases: one for allegedly vandalizing the car belonging to Autumn's mother Patricia Clowers (which has been bound over to a grand jury), and another for charges of illegally recording phone conversations between Autumn and Clowers.
According to Autumn, none of that mattered in her divorce case before Soloman.
"Every time I've come before her, before anything is put on as evidence, she said she has made her mind up [about] me," Autumn says.
Autumn obtained one order of protection in early 2009, dropped it, and then got another in November of that year. Both were from Soloman. John allegedly broke the second order, and in January 2010 the couple went to court.
"Before anything could be heard from me or his side," Autumn says, "[Soloman] says, 'Save this Catlett case for last because I already know what I'm going to do for Ms. Catlett.'
"So when I finally stand before her, she says, 'Ms. Catlett, you don't impress me. I'm not impressed with you at all.' Just a barrage of abusive language."
As best the Scene can tell from the transcripts Autumn provided and those on file with the clerk's office, "barrage" is tough to verify. Autumn's motion for recusal details a few incidents drawn from court transcripts. One is the "not impressed" remark. Another is the "I don't even know if she is human enough" one.
What's more striking about Catlett v. Catlett is the way the judge ruled and seemed skeptical of Autumn throughout. For example, at a hearing on June 11, 2010, the judge accused her of being paranoid before she'd even testified about the matter in question.
The hearing arose over two late-night phone calls Autumn received from her son's Tracfone on April 30. She knows it was his phone because she has the phone company records. Autumn called back, and when she got no answer she asked the police to check on him. Unfortunately, as it was a low priority call, they didn't show up until 2 a.m., waking John.
"What had she done? She's called the police. The police came, found nothing wrong at the house," John's lawyer Janelle Simmons said at the hearing. "The child was asleep." Simmons also alleged that Autumn was responsible for some damage to electronics around the house, specifically cutting cords attached to cameras placed around the house.
At this point, after the judge had already called her paranoid, Autumn got to say she believed John had been taping her.
"Is that why you took the — Did you take the security camera down?" said Soloman.
"No ma'am. I —" Autumn said.
"What happened to it?" Soloman says. Autumn said she had no idea.
"This has got to the stage where, you know what, I think both these people are crazy, and I don't believe your client," the judge told Karla Hewitt, Autumn's lawyer at the time. "She took that camera down. I want you to frigging answer me."
A short time later, Soloman again said Autumn was paranoid for believing that John was recording her. This time, Hewitt attempted to rebut that accusation with evidence. She didn't get far.
"Your honor, I actually have a note in Mr. Catlett's, I believe in his handwriting, where he has recorded conversations of her with other people," Hewitt said.
"I'm sure, you know, there might be some times," Soloman said.
"It's a felony," Hewitt insisted.
Soloman agreed: "It is a felony."
Nevertheless, Soloman still saw fit to award John full possession of the house and custody of Canaan for the indefinite future.
"I've already made — I made my decision when I read the motions and the response," the judge ruled. "I thought that Ms. Catlett sounded like she really needed some psychiatric help."
That order, Autumn says, drove her to jeopardize her entire case. She took her child to Percy Priest Lake, and as they walked, a clear but unwise thought formed in her head.
"I decided I was not going to take this child back to his father, because I kept trying to explain to her that this man was crazy and she just kept ignoring it," Autumn says.
She returned Canaan to his father two days later and got a stern dressing-down from Hewitt. But the damage was definitely done. Everyone went back to court on June 17, 2010. Soloman ordered both parents to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and took away Autumn's unsupervised visitation. Before the divorce proceedings, she had been a stay-at-home mom. Now she was given two hours per week at the Nashville Exchange Club's Visitation Center, which oversees supervised visits.
Autumn's current lawyer, Thomas Bloom, tried to have the June 17 order appealed. He was denied — but the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which keeps a close eye on courtroom conduct, didn't entirely brush off his concerns. After reviewing the transcript, the court wrote, "We are troubled by the informality of the proceedings, the limited proof allowed, and the interruptions of the mother's testimony."
Catlett filed a complaint with the Court of the Judiciary and, later, a motion for recusal. Soloman recused herself this year on May 15, with the following language:
"During the last hearing, comments made by wife's attorney, Mr. Tom Bloom, were so audacious, this court has decided it should recuse itself. Although it is certain both parties could receive a fair and unbiased hearing, wife would never perceive the hearing to be fair and unbiased no matter the outcome."
As yet, there's no outcome in sight. Last winter, John Wesley Catlett accused Autumn of violating the parenting agreement two more times and asked the court to reconsider the schedule. For now, the parenting arrangement remains. On June 7 of this year, John was indicted for wiretapping. A week later, Janelle Simmons withdrew as his divorce attorney.
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