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Ethics rules shed new light on Crapo case dismissal

From left, Desiree Daniels, Gloria Page, Mary Alice Crapo and Elizabeth Tallman discuss the problems posed by the city’s ban on Airbnb. (Photo David Tulis)

Does work by a Chattanooga sit-in city court judge meet the standard of the judicial ethics canon? Kevin Lewis, an attorney who works as Collegedale city court judge, sat in on the Mary Alice Crapo case Thursday in city court — and punted.

By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7 FM

The venue was the court of elected judge Sherry Paty.

Juge Wilson ruled against Mrs. Crapo’s motion for summary judgment, and breezed over a brief she filed arguing against the constitutionality of the city’s 2-year-old ban on Airbnb in many parts of the city. She handed him and city attorney Joe Kelly an additional document citing 17 cases to shore up her contention that the so-called “overlay map” is unconstitutional because it discriminates arbitrarily among like or similarly situated parties.

Is city court exempt from law?

Mrs. Crapo, 65, whose house is on North Wilder Street, says the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates an ancient right among the people to be free of laws, rules and ordinances that are “abitrary and capricious.”

Mrs. Crapo is aggrieved that she would not settle the matter in city court. She is told that to move her case to circuit court she must have more than F$409, which includes fees and a bond of about half the amount. She is so poor she says she will have to file a pauper’s oath. 

“A judge shall comply with the law,” intones Rule 10, the ethics rules for Tennessee judges (Rule 1.1 compliance with the law). 

“A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.” (Rule 1.2 Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary)

Mrs. Crapo had little to say regarding facts, and though a city inspector laid down testimony of a fact base, she did not object or question him. She has a “right to be heard according to law.”

Judge Lewis says in the hearing that he will not consider her legal arguments. He’ll rule on the facts, and obtained agreement from Mrs. Crapo that if he rules her guilty, she has grounds for appeal to circuit court.

But the rules say he has a duty to decide cases. “A judge shall hear and decide matters assigned to the judge” except when circumstances would disqualify him (cited in a separate rule).

Is it possible Judge Lewis avoided ruling because he was a stand-in judge from another city, and it is too big a job to rule Chattanooga’s STVR ordinance unconstitutional? Does he duck a decision because it would violate an understanding, convention or policy among judges to defer to one another and not step on one another’s toes? There’s a rule for that.

“A judge shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor or fear of criticism. *** A judge shall not permit family, social, political, financial, or other interests or relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment. *** A judge shall not convey or permit others to convey the impression that any person or organization is in a position to influence the judge.” Rule 2.4 External Influences on Judicial Conduct

In other words, the law is the law, and one rules on facts and law regardless of one’s personal station, and perhaps regardless of whether the court is a corporation or inferior court, as Judge Wilson described it to Mrs. Crapo in a 30-minute hearing.

City court should settle matter

State judicial ethics rules suggest that city court is where the Crapo matter should be settled. 

“The city court shall be a court of record and shall have original and exclusive jurisdiction of all violations of municipal ordinances, and shall also be clothed with the same powers and duties possessed by justices of the peace, touching the arrest and the preliminary trial, discharging, binding over or punishing under the small offense law, all persons charged with offenses against the state, committed within the city. *** Every person arrested on the charge of violating an ordinance, or on process issuing from the city court, shall be presented to the court for trial within twenty-four hours after his arrest, unless Sunday shall intervene. City charter, Sec. 4.1.

The honorable court ruled a city vagrancy ordinance as unconstitutional. Attorney Nathan Brooks brought the argument and it was approved by Jerry Sloan, who now works for district attorney Neal Pinkston..

The city attorney has a duty “either in person or by an assistant, to appear and prosecute cases in the city court when called upon by the mayor or any council member or the city judge.” City charter, Sec. 3.63. Duties generally.  

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