A murder defendant stands before Judge Mart Lasley in Soddy-Daisy city court in 2012. (Photo VLB Productions on YouTube)

A murder defendant stands before Judge Mart Lasley in Soddy-Daisy city court in 2012. Most defendants appear for victimless petty offenses. (Photo VLB Productions on YouTube)

The ugly spat between Brittney Parker and Roy Corder, 29, continues in a neon-lit courtroom in Soddy-Daisy, with the judge playing uncle and scold and town cops tossing in bits of Soddy-Daisy scuttlebutt without being sworn.

The couple are about the 25th party to come before Judge Marty Lasley in the small Hamilton County, Tenn., city north of Chattanooga.

By David Tulis

This time the couple are in a domestic assault case over his taking her keys. Police officers such as Sgt. Melissa Daniels had once again yanked apart the pair who “live under the same roof” and have a child in the residence from a previous intimate relationship.

William Corder is in a troubled relationship.

William Corder is in a troubled relationship.

Yes, she called the cops, Mrs. Parker admits. “It was stupid.”

Finally, in the first testimony of the night that Judge Lasley ordains be made under oath, Judge Lasley swears the parties. He asks if he can end a no-contact order and review improvements in their domestic uproars two months out.

“My shift is at their house all the time,” Sgt. Daniels says. “They just don’t get along.”

Judge Lasley is torn. He wants a woman in fear for her safety to call the police. But he doesn’t want them to be called for no legitimate reason. Domestic calls are the most dangerous for officers, he explains, and though he is not trying to impugn the character of either Mrs. Parker or Mr. Corder, he feels concern that they are called so often to that home. The fighting couple go to the same church as officer Daniels, Mile Straight Baptist Church, about two miles down Dayton Pike toward Chattanooga.

“It seems they’ve been called to you all’s place over a matter of nothing,” he says. “You’re putting the court in a weird situation” of urging Mrs. Parker to not call the cops while advising that she should call them when fearing danger.

Alcohol comes up as a cause of the couple’s distress. Three men in the front row know Mrs. Parker from meetings at the Transformation Project, a Christian charity. She has been “very erratic” at meetings intended to quench the thirst for spirits and suggest alternately an interest in God.

“They’ve become a nuisance to everybody,” a second cop says.

An attorney files for judgeship. Marty Lasley is joined by his father, Don, left, and his wife Kelly. The clerk at right is not identified. (Chattanoogan.com)

An attorney files for judgeship. Marty Lasley is joined by his father, Don, left, a retired preacher, and Marty Lasley’s wife, Kelly. The clerk at right is not identified. (Chattanoogan.com)

Misery of lower courts

City court in Soddy-Daisy is every Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the town hall. It is not a constitutional court, but a justice of the peace forum where justice, if it’s that, roughly hewn, where compromises are reached, forgiveness awarded and the judge put into the position of negotiator, “tough-love” sponsor and agent of the state whose “peace and dignity” pretenses lurk behind every distressing encounter. In many ways it’s a frontier town court.

In every case the abstract state is the offended party. The informality of the court allows it to handle a huge caseload. Some cases take more time, as does Mrs. Parker’s domestic terrors. Others take half a minute.

Judge Lasley finishes an arraignment docket from the afternoon with two women:

➤ Rebecca Hendrickson. She did as the court asks with the remaining balance of a debt to the state is “waived and you are done with this court,” Judge Lasley said. She happily flees.

➤ Courtney is a slim woman with flashy handbag from which cling a set of sunglasses. She indicates she needs a new court date because she is hiring an attorney. Her encounter with the state is delayed until April 1. Judge Lasley asks the clerk to “put a note on it” because he “wants to chat with [the attorney] briefly” touching on a detail from a detective.

‘Absolute right’ to a jury trial

Judge Lasley is elected to his office by the residents of Soddy-Daisy. He is a family man and  son of a Baptist minister, Don, who believes in the reformed doctrines of election and sovereign grace. The senior Lasley studies his Bible and thick theological books every Friday at the Panera bread store in Hixson while I attend my weekly Panera Posse.

“You have an absolute right to a jury trial if you want one,” booms the younger Lasley in his robes for the room to hear. In city court is no jury, he explains. “Ask me about that,” he says. He explains that if a defendant wants a jury trial, he would have the case “bound over” to the grand jury. If the grand jury issues an indictment, he says, the person would be tried by a jury.

He relays this material not in a frightening way, but as a reasonable option. Some judge make it sound as though exercising the right to an indictment is a sure way to prison and impossible to contemplate — not true at all.

He says he wishes everyone in the room well, and takes his seat.

The unwashed, grim-looking commoners tread up and down to the podium.

➤ Jessie Chadwick, 21, has had trouble staying off of drugs declared contraband in the federal drug war, in which state government plays a part. “You’ve tested positive a number of times,” Mr. Lasley says. “Sept. 25, Oct. 15. Nov. 30. Jan. 13 — positive for meth.” The judge orders a drug test on the spot. A few minutes later, Mr. Chadwick is at the podium again.

Jessie Chadwick

Jessie Chadwick’s pleasurable addictions bring him into the state’s notice and under a court audience’s snickers.

His mother stands at his right. He is 21 and lives on Mowbray Mountain with his dad.

“The good news is that you won’t get out today,” Judge Lasley tells Mr. Chadwick, “so you” — and here he addresses the mom — “won’t be killing him.”

The results, the court declares, are positive for meth.

“It just don’t make sense,” the mom laments.

“It’s blowin’ my mind that it’s shown up in my system,” the young man avers. Members of the audience snicker at his ridiculous bravado.

Judge Lasley is bemused. “Are people secretly putting meth in your peanut butter?” he demands. He orders Mr. Chadwick held (perhaps for his own safety) without bond — “You can’t have him since he has no idea how he’s getting meth in his system.”

The mother leaves, her face looking fed up and exhausted.

➤ Hannah Bearden is in her 20s. She gives the name of an attorney, who is not present. She says she will call the attorney and get back with the judge once he arrives. Attorneys on Tuesday make a circuit among small-town courts.

Tyler Cranmore

Tyler Cranmore — paid extra in restitution.

➤ Tyler Cranmore, 20, identifies himself as the fourth name uttered by Judge Lasley — the ones before him are failures to appear. I learn later he is charged with failure to appear. He wears boots and has a bowl haircut. His arm bears ugly tattoo marks; he stands with his arms behind his back. Judge Lasley directs him to go into Chattanooga and talk with the district attorney about “the underlying case.” Mr. Cranmore stole F$38, it is said, but made F$40 restitution.

➤ James Schaefer is making an initial appearance. He wants to get an attorney. His hearing date is set April 19.

➤ Another defendant looking for an attorney is Steven Ferry. He is given a card and told he is “free to go.”

Expungement may save student

➤ Attorney Hank Hill makes an appearance for a high school student named Summy. He argues a plea bargain be accepted in light of Mr. Summy’s lack of a prior record, that he was “not significantly over the limit” for narcotics. Mr. Lasley addresses Mr. Summy, saying that if he keeps clean, his record will be expunged. He explains expungement. When he applies for a job and is asked if he’s ever been arrested or convicted of a crime, he can truly answer no if his record has been expunged. Expungement operates like the doctrine of grace in God’s economy.

Judge Lasley accepts the plea and orders a “review” of the case is six months. Mr. Hill, with a straggly long shock of gray hair, stands unceremoniously with his mitts in his jacket pockets.

Amber Simpson

Amber Simpson — a woman surviving the indignity of a jail cell in Hamilton County, Tenn. Her appearance in Soddy-Daisy city court is in chains.

➤ Another plea bargain. Mr. Brevis, with long hair, stands next to a besuited attorney. He faces a review in six months, but has “a full year” to pay. His plea bargain is accepted.

In chains

➤ Amber Simpson, 25, is an inmate, wearing a yellow prison jumpsuit. She is the first woman my son, 13, has seen in chains — on wrist and at ankle. Her attorney is the same suit helping Mr. Brevis, just before her. She was driving without a license and has “significant fines” to pay off.

Judge Lasley says her sentence would be “for time served.” Miss Simpson might otherwise be pretty, but a hard life shows on her face, as crisply as her tattoo. She was sentenced to six months in jail for, as the judge says, “driving without a license,” for which there is no underlying statutory offense if indeed the charge was driving without a license. She has been behind bars since Jan. 25 on several charges.

➤ Inmate Burroughs wears baggy jail clothes with his white socks pulled up over the clumpy pant cuffs. He has a public defender. With him the judge holds a discussion of “an OR bond,” which I take to be an “own recognizance” bond in which your word is good enough to bring you back for processing. The charge is “failure to appear on a review of costs and fines.” I believe this means he failed to appear at a hearing focusing on court costs and fines.

“Failure to appear is its own free-standing event,” Judge Lasley explains. It is a new case, a new offense. “I am going to OR you,” he says, and orders another hearing held in 60 days.

➤ Next are two more cases. Jerry Yess. After him, Brian Cox. Mr. Cox’s attorney is mumbling to the judge about reparations of the defendant. If Mr. Cox is becoming clean, the court is “with you,” the judge says. “This court would like nothing better than to say ‘Good luck’ to you.”

➤ Taylor Brown is a no-show, and a woman present to be a witness in his case is dismissed, leaving the room with an unidentified man.

➤ Prisoner Ryan Hodge is waiting on true bills but is already at 100 days in the jail. Judge Lasley says he will appoint Mr. McIntire the lawyer to represent him and resets the encounter for the next Tuesday. Mr. Hodge is on “no bond” on other charges. No indication of the nature of the charges, nor why he is denied bond.

➤ Avery Collins — “failure to appear.” His overlong jail jumper trousers are rolled up more than once at the ankles. Judge Lasley grants OR tonight — “that means you’ll probably get out tomorrow,” he says. Mr. Collins must pay fees in full — F$155.75. For many people before such tribunals, that’s a huge sum.

➤ Jason Vines is the prisoner in the No. 2 seat in the front of the audience gallery. He had and failed drug screening tests Nov 5, 23 and 30. He tells the judge, “I’m trying to find a job now.” The judge assigns so-and-so to rep him “as your attorney.” Mr. Vines takes his seat among the prisoners.

➤ John Ford stands at the bar. The judge tells him to meet with the district attorney to work out a plea. Mr. Ford doesn’t have an attorney in the meth possession charges against him, but is entitled to have one available at any stage of the proceedings against him, the judge says. Having come in support of Mr. Ford is his boss at a fast-food restaurant in Red Bank, a man who is also his friend.

➤ Stephen Stewart says he needs time to hire an attorney. He has gray hair, tattoos.

Is there a bigger picture?

To make a 7 p.m. commitment son Jacob and I quit the court at 6:30, and it had perhaps an hour more to go. He had never seen anyone in chains before, but tonight he does. My reporting here is 95 percent complete and needs an edit and verification of spellings. The docket wasn’t available online prior to court and is still not available online.

— Many of the offenses before city court are real crimes. Looking at next Tuesday’s dockets the offense titles include: Theft. Shoplifting. Assault. Burglary of a motor vehicle. Trespassing. These are “evil in themselves” crimes, real crimes. Mala in se crimes, to borrow the Latin

Mostly, though, the offenses are paper crimes, victimless, offenses against the “peace and dignity” of the state. Driving on revoked. Possession of drug paraphernalia. Failure to appear. Simple possession. “Stop sign or signal.” Driving on suspended. Evading arrest. These are called “mala prohibitas,” evil because prohibited. They are not inherent evils or sins before God. They may, however, have come onto the docket from sinful actions and sinful and careless ways of living by the defendant. The Chattanooga Times Free Press publishes a graphic suggesting the extensive nature of charges for victimless crimes. http://right2know.timesfreepress.com/mugs.aspx

— City court is a corporation court, a system of rough administration/adjudication wherein the niceties of constitutional protections are set aside by agreement of all parties. Seeking shelter in informality and speed of process, defendants waive their rights to constitutional protection in hopes of a favorable outcome and to be done with their troubles.

In any guilty finding, a defendant can appeal to criminal court for a trial de novo — a completely new trial. A defeat before Judge Lasley is not part of any record, so de novo means just that. A new trial, a fresh start, with no baggage or errors to dog the defendant.

— City court is filled with the poorest and most common type of people. They are “working class,” employees, jobless, addicted, people for whom it is difficult to plan a court date or even remember it, people whose view is short-term, immediate and given to temporary alleviations of pain rather than prolonged spells of productivity and personal expansion.

These are the sort of people whom are improvident, temporary, not thrifty, not denying themselves. They are beset with many of their own problems, and are those least able or least willing to keep up with the many impositions from the state (licenses, fees, court dates, fee payment schedules). Rather than feel repelled by looking at their mugshots on websites such as simplyshipley.com, we should think instead of this prospect:

The progressive state with its courts is a mechanism that grinds down the poor, compels fear, skims fees from the weak and supports the prison- and justice industrial complex, the main harvest of which is that strata of the population least able and willing to resist.

City courts are relief valves that save constitutional and jury courts the trouble to try every niggling case. They allow the state to maintain its police state operation, its harassment by police of the citizenry, its continual enforcement of its supposed authority. If everyone demanded a jury trial, the system would collapse, or police operations would have to be scaled back by 97 percent or 99 percent.

— Judge Lasley is a Christian man who works within difficult confines. It is hard to tell, in the loose framework of his jurisdiction, whether he is one of those arbitrary and capricious judges of whom I’ve heard tell in Lawrence County in central Tennessee. It is entirely possible, since his is not a court of record, for the holder of that seat to violate the prohibition against arbitrary and capricious acts in state law and do whatever he feels like doing.

It’s possible, but is unlikely. Judge Lasley’s background story published when he ran for office suggests he is a genuine practicing Christian trying to be useful as a judge. He belongs to Soddy-Daisy, is elected to office and in this respect represents the people. He is better than the court and state he serves, above the circumstances of the people whom law, ordinance, police and sheriff’s deputies drag before it.

Though officially his task is to be harsh and remonstrative against those who take the state’s claims upon society and their persons lightly, Judge Lasley’s government seems marked with lenity and grace.

For other essays about the informal hubbub of city and sessions courts in Hamilton County, Tenn., (traffic charges) you may wish to enjoy:

Preserving your rights in city court; judge fields my odd liberty queries

Mike Little: Cited to city court, you are wise to know your rights, its limitations

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