For some carousers, shoplifters, panhandlers and other small-time criminals arrested on a Friday, it’s a chance to get out from behind bars sooner. To elected officials, it’s a way to better manage the city’s inmate population. And for Nashville’s 11 General Sessions Court judges, it means holding court once every 11th Saturday.
Saturday court sessions have been a Nashville staple for more than a decade, but in recent years have become less frequent, with judges sometimes canceling court at the last minute or simply refusing to give an hour or two of their time every 11th week. That’s why a few city leaders concerned about a looming threat of overpopulated jails recently lobbied to again make the Saturday docket a permanent fixture and, despite petulant opposition from a few judges, their efforts were successful.
“Overcrowding historically led us to major problems because we ignored it, and I just don’t want to end up back in that situation,” says Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall, one of four high-ranking officials who urged the judges to resume Saturday court on a regular basis. The “major problems” he refers to stemmed from a class-action lawsuit that led to years of costly litigation, embarrassment and federal oversight.
The federal government assumed control of Nashville’s jails in 1987 because of overcrowding, and the city struggled to overhaul its criminal justice system, including the start of Saturday review dockets to control the inmate population. Finally, in 2002, the city regained its autonomy after 15 years of incremental improvements, but the potential for overcrowding remains.
Despite that, it’s become common for some judges either to cancel or protest the Saturday review docket, meaning dozens of inmates arrested for relatively minor offenses on a Friday remain in jail throughout the weekend, whereas they wouldn’t had they been arrested during the week.
But that no longer will be an option since a majority of judges recently voted to hold court every Saturday.
“In my opinion, it’s the right thing to do,” says Judge Gale Robinson, who voted at the judges’ Nov. 8 monthly meeting in favor of the Saturday dockets. “I don’t have any problem working an hour or two on Saturday every 11 weeks.”
Minutes from the last judges’ meeting don’t reflect the exact vote count or how each judge voted, and General Sessions Court Administrator Warner Hassell says he doesn’t have that information either. But those who attended the meeting say there was some heated debate and that the measure passed only narrowly, with judges Michael Mondelli and Gloria Dumas among those opposing the measure. In particular, Dumas, who happens to be the current presiding General Sessions judge, has been hostile to the idea of holding Saturday court for some time, though she didn’t return calls from the Scene.
As for Mondelli, he says, “I don’t like it,” adding that Saturday dockets were useful at one time, but now are “completely unnecessary” because there is no jail overcrowding. And Mondelli says even if overcrowding still posed a threat, as the sheriff and others suggest, he doesn’t believe enough people are released as a result of the Saturday docket to make much of a difference.
Besides, Mondelli says, “It sends the wrong signal to the community that we are soft on crime.”
Then there’s the cost associated with opening the courthouse on Saturdays, an amount that hasn’t yet been calculated but that Mondelli speculates exceeds the benefit. Finally, he says the two-hour Saturday session is inconvenient for court employees, taking them away from their families on the weekend.
While there hasn’t been critical overcrowding inside Metro jails for several years, Mondelli’s colleague Robinson says there are times when the system is close to reaching maximum capacity. The weekend court sessions also result in more manageable dockets during the week, with the Saturday judge typically hearing about 40 cases that would otherwise be held over until Monday. No felony or serious misdemeanor cases are reviewed on Saturdays.
“I’m sure there are some judges who aren’t happy about this,” says Sheriff Hall, adding that it was Mayor Bill Purcell who several months ago asked that he and a few other officials urge the judges to support making this a more regular meeting. “It only hits them every 11 weeks, and it only lasts about two hours…. It’s not a huge burden.”
Some lawyers say they can’t understand why any General Sessions judge would oppose working a few Saturdays a year. Those same lawyers are quick to mention the judges’ high salaries ($140,000 a year) for what some critics have historically viewed as cushy workloads. Judges often work far less than 40 hours a week and can—and do—appoint special judges to hear their dockets, an offloading that is available to them for Saturday court too.
But Metro Law Director Karl Dean—who, along with Sheriff Hall, public defender Ross Alderman and District Attorney Torry Johnson, lobbied for the regular Saturday review dockets and who is a potential mayoral candidate—soft-pedals an issue that other courthouse insiders have long complained simply illustrates the laziness of many of the judges. “The General Sessions judges are being asked to do something that is extraordinary, something that’s not ordinarily done in other jurisdictions, and we certainly appreciate that,” he says. Even before the judges voted to make the Saturday docket mandatory, Dean estimates it was held about 75 percent of the time.
Now that the Saturday dockets will again be a regular occurrence, not only will the jail population remain in check, but there also will be less confusion among court employees who have long complained about not knowing until the last minute whether they would have to work. Judges sometimes would wait until the end of the week before deciding whether they would hold a Saturday session.
There also are savings associated with more quickly releasing inmates charged with minor misdemeanors—the fewer inmates incarcerated, the less cost to taxpayers.
Finally, public defender Ross Alderman says that in addition to all of these practical benefits, it’s simply the right thing to do: “Someone who is arrested on Friday shouldn’t be treated any differently than someone who is arrested any other day of the week.”