Autumn Catlett looks happy for a dead woman — or rather, a woman who was once reported dead by her soon-to-be ex-husband. Her happiness is all the more surprising because for the past year and a half, she's been enmeshed in a nasty divorce.
In her box of divorce-related documents, she carries a snarl of detailed arrest histories, police reports and affidavits for allegations of vandalism, wiretapping and assault, all involving her estranged husband, John Wesley Catlett. (Multiple calls to his attorney requesting an interview or comment were not returned.) She also has a January 2010 letter from Verizon expressing condolences for her death. Her husband didn't want to pay the phone bill, she says, so he told the company she died.
Despite all that ugliness, though, one bright spot has opened in Autumn's life. She no longer has to face Judge Carol Soloman of Davidson County's 8th Circuit Court, 20th Judicial District.
Ever since she first appeared before Soloman, Autumn says, she's been the perpetual target of the judge's "abusive language," scorn and unfavorable rulings in the fight for custody of her son Canaan. She claims it started as early as March 2010, her first divorce hearing in Soloman's courtroom — a congested, noisy toxic waste dump of human emotion that gets emptier and quieter as the cases get uglier.
In a hearing that month, according to a recusal motion later filed by Autumn's attorney, Soloman said of Autumn, "I don't even know if she is human enough to show emotion, you know, scream or something, she's making the child crazy, it's her, she's the one."
At the time, the recusal motion charged, Autumn had never taken the witness stand.
For the losing side to complain about the judge is routine. What's more, Soloman presides over domestic court, where the most painful, personal matters of a family's dissolution — from who gets the children to who gets the blame — are hashed out in the company of strangers.
But after reviewing more than 20 of Soloman's divorce and family court rulings that were later appealed, the Scene found a notable pattern: allegations of bias based on the judge's demeanor and language in the courtroom. Appellants alleged that instead of an impartial arbiter, they faced a disdainful jurist who picked sides far too early.
Some charged that she was demonstrably dismissive: refusing to hear evidence, interrupting testimony. Not just on motion-docket Fridays — when anything important has already been written down and filed with the Circuit Court clerk days or weeks before the judge even sees the litigants — but on contempt-hearing Thursdays, when a potential jail sentence hangs in the balance and presentation of evidence is imperative.
"The most common complaint is that people are not allowed to present their evidence," says Tony Gottlieb, a Nashville music industry manager and once-active Soloman critic who heads the divorced-fathers' rights group DAD of Tennessee. "They have a sense their case has been decided before they even present it. I hear continuous complaints of [Soloman] being disrespectful. ... I have heard that she has these sort of screaming, kind of bipolar-type fits about things."
The Scene made multiple requests to interview Soloman and sent detailed questions about the allegations in this article to her by letter, fax and email. She declined comment through Davidson County administrator of trial courts Tim Townsend, who says he advised her not to respond.
"It's just a very fine line with a judge being able to comment on her rulings," Townsend says. "We always have people mad at us."
In her support, however, he sent a statement via email.
"I can tell you that Judge Soloman is an extremely hard-working and passionate judge who cares deeply about the welfare of families and children," he wrote. "In family law, the decisions are never easy and there is always going to be someone, or sometimes multiple parties, who are unhappy with the outcome. That's why our court system has an appeals process — to give parties the chance to seek review of a judge's ruling in a matter.
"Judge Soloman has disposed of more than 17,000 divorces and petitions since she agreed to hear domestic cases in 2003. Judge Soloman stands behind her decisions and will continue to perform her duties to the best of her abilities."
Those duties may change. Attorneys who practice family law in Davidson County's 20th Judicial District have been asked to meet at 3 p.m. this Thursday, July 28, in 4th Circuit Court Judge Phil Smith's courtroom. Townsend would not discuss the nature of the meeting, but according to several local attorneys, Soloman may this week announce her gradual withdrawal from all domestic disputes.
"Judge Smith told me what's going to happen is he is going to take over most of Judge Soloman's workload for a year," says Nashville family law attorney Helen Rogers, who considers herself a good friend of Soloman. Rogers says that Soloman's had some persistent health problems earlier this year that forced her to miss weeks of work.
"What I understand is just that she's had too much stress," Rogers says.
That Soloman is a lightning rod for controversy has been a matter of record since her very first election in 1998. She ran for a judgeship in the newly created 8th Circuit as a self-declared upstart who challenged the courthouse patriarchy — a onetime single mother who started her legal career when she was almost 40.
Born and raised in Ashland, Ky., Soloman saw her own parents divorce. She married her first husband, Monte Campbell, and had her first child in 1960, according to birth records. At the time, she was only one year out of high school.
She would go on to marry four more times. Of the divorce records reviewed by the Scene, her 1975 divorce from John C. Offutt seems particularly contentious. This was before she'd finished her studies at the Nashville School of Law. Back then, she was working part time at St. Thomas Hospital while her husband worked at Franklin High School.
There was a battle over legal custody of the couple's four children. At least initially, records show the court ruled in Offutt's favor. He was granted full custody — though that may have been a moot point, since the former couple continued living in the same house for two more years. Regardless, according to court records, a 1976 agreement divided legal custody. Soloman was given the two older kids, Offutt the two younger ones. She and the older children finally moved out in 1977. The asset-splitting agreement awarded them the family's VW bus.
This background gave Soloman good reason to paint herself as the underdog alternative to her opponent, Clifton Knowles, then an attorney at white-shoe Nashville firm Bass, Berry & Sims. Knowles, now a federal magistrate, had gotten his bachelor's at Vanderbilt, then went to law school at UT-Knoxville. By contrast, Soloman pointed to the degree she'd received from the Nashville School of Law in 1979.
But Knowles' own background wasn't exactly patrician entitlement — his father had worked as a laborer in Florida. And what longtime courthouse observers recall as Soloman's scrappy, aggressive style may have put off many of her peers, judging from a Nashville Bar Association poll taken in 1998 before the election. Of the attorneys who gave an opinion, nearly 92 percent said they would "recommend" or "highly recommend" Knowles. For Soloman, the percentage dropped to just above 40.
Nevertheless, Soloman won. She made headlines in her first year as a judge when she sent former state Appeals Court Judge Charles Galbreath (who famously resigned in 1978 after a letter he wrote to Hustler was published in the magazine) to jail for contempt of court when he refused to surrender his tape recorder in her courtroom.
The headlines haven't stopped, but their substance has changed. In 2008, she was criticized for signing Nashville's infamous "English First" petition — something she said she did only at a friend's behest, but which handed critics ammunition to question her objectivity when Hispanic litigants appeared before her. Earlier this month, local media reported that she owed more than $1,600 in back taxes on two Madison rental properties she owns.
In 2006, while seeking re-election, Soloman was videotaped campaigning to a group of jurors during jury instructions. Tony Gottlieb — who at the time was waging a political campaign against her, even though he says he has never appeared in her court — filed an ethics report against her to the Tennessee Division of Elections. But Soloman apologized, and the state declined to pursue the complaint. Indeed, in her 13-year judicial career, Soloman has never been publicly disciplined by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, which oversees judicial conduct. In the end, she handily defeated her opponent, Jefre Goldtrap, in the county Democratic primary by a margin of 18,000 votes to 11,000.
The struggles that accompanied Soloman to the bench may help explain some of her courtroom demeanor. On the bench, she tends to show a level of emotional engagement that is striking, even moving. She's prone to crying, for one. Certain issues — parental substance abuse, for one — are almost guaranteed to produce a reaction. She yells, and tells witnesses, litigants and lawyers to "shut up." But she also visibly rejoices in those cases where the broken people in her court somehow reach an understanding.
Soloman's demeanor, it could be argued, is a clever tactic cultivated by the judge to encourage parties to settle without involving the court. On the other hand, Soloman's critics charge that the same abrasive, confrontational behavior she used when she was challenging the system looks far less fair — like bullying, in fact — when it comes from an authority figure firmly entrenched in the establishment.
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