Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy gave members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club a look Thursday at how the local and state court systems work.
She explained she has visited many local schools to teach children and teenagers about the court systems, but there are things some adults do not know about them.
“If you don’t understand it, don’t be surprised,” Reedy said with a chuckle. “Some lawyers don’t understand it.”
Reedy is one of only 33 judges in the state who has criminal jurisdiction. She explained that each judge statewide has certain types of cases he or she can or cannot try.
The state of Tennessee categorizes courts and their judges under a hierarchy that includes everything from courts that handle local traffic violation cases to the state Supreme Court. Cases that need to continue to be tried in court can potentially progress from the most local to the most supreme.
“Courts of limited jurisdiction” include juvenile courts, which handle cases involving minors; general sessions courts, which handle a range of cases from mental health to misdemeanors; and municipal courts, which handle preliminary hearings and traffic and other municipal violations.
Trial courts, the next tier up the hierarchy, include four different types. Probate courts handle estates, conservatorships and guardianships, while chancery courts handle domestic relations and civil cases. The criminal court handles criminal cases, and the circuit courts can handle cases of the three other types.
Reedy asked her audience who did not have careers in the legal system to see if they could name any of the 85 Tennessee circuit court judges, and it took a few tries before correct answers were given.
She explained circuit court judges do not often become known for trying certain types of cases because they are assigned to the cases where they are needed.
The goal with having judges who can step in to handle multiple types of cases ensures people being charged with crimes do not have to wait too long for their trials. Reedy stressed the importance of an innocent person not having to spend a long time in jail and a guilty person not going too long without being punished.
“That is a very important part of the criminal courtroom ... ensuring not too much time passes,” Reedy said.
Sometimes, she said, delaying a case can be a tactic an attorney tries to use to defend a client.
If a case makes it past the trial court stage, it goes to one of Tennessee’s intermediate appellate courts, courts that allow already-decided cases to be appealed.
Such appeals go either to the state court of appeals or the state court of criminal appeals.
“The court of last resort” for appeals within the state is the Tennessee Supreme Court.
On every level, judges have the job of being there to facilitate cases to make sure everything is done fairly and according to the law. Reedy compared the job of a judge to that of a referee.
“My job is to let those lawyers fight very hard for their sides,” she said.
However, she said it is also a judge’s job to “cry foul” if need be.
One thing Reedy said she wanted people to know about the court system is that those facing charges have rights and are, as the saying goes, “innocent until proven guilty.”
Someone who is charged with a crime has a right to an attorney who will be there at all “critical proceedings,” and the court can appoint an attorney if the accused cannot hire one. That person also has the right to a “preliminary examination” in which the person has to be shown there was “probable cause” for their charges. He or she can also have a jury trial if the crime is one that would call for a punishment more serious than a $50 fine.
Reedy gave the Rotarians illustrative handouts before she spoke, including copies of the form a defendant has to sign if they want to waive those rights and make a plea.
“I have been informed and know the minimum and maximum penalties for each of the above charge(s) ... I have rights to an attorney, a trial by jury, and to require the State to prove my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” reads the form to be signed by the charged.
It requires the defendant to initial which of the rights he or she is willing to waive. A person may plead guilty without having an attorney, preliminary examination or trial. Taking advantage of the right to have a trial allows for the possibility of being found innocent.
Reedy sits on the bench for criminal cases in Bradley, McMinn, Polk and Monroe counties, and she is also the judge for Ducktown’s local court. While not circuit judges by title, she and Tennessee’s other criminal court judges travel on circuits to different counties throughout the state.
She and other judicial candidates are on the ballot for the local elections taking place right now in the form of early voting. Election Day is Aug. 7.