Michael E. Spitzer, Judge and Chancellor

Biography

Editor’s Note:  Judge Spitzer is the first circuit judge and chancellor of the new 32nd judicial district, which will officially begin September 1, 2022.  This district includes three counties that were originally part of the 21st judicial district, and Judge Spitzer served as a judge in that district before the creation of the 32nd judicial district.  

Reports of Cases Reviewed by Appellate Courts – Beginning Jan. 1, 2022

Text is the appellate court’s summary of the opinion. 

Scroll down for important information.

 

Bradley v. Bradley (Odom), No. M2022-00259-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2023).  A father filed a petition to modify the existing parenting plan. The trial court found a material change in circumstances had occurred and it was in the child’s best interest to award custody to the father. Because the evidence does not preponderate against either finding, we affirm.

 

Morris v. Clendenion, Warden, No. M2022-00857-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Crim. App. Aug. 3, 2023).  Petitioner, Roosevelt Morris, appeals from the Hickman County Circuit Court’s summary dismissal of his petition for writ of habeas corpus. Petitioner alleges he is entitled to relief because his sentence is unconstitutional under Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), he did not receive timely pretrial notice of the State’s notice of intent to seek enhanced punishment, and because the habeas corpus court did not give him sufficient time to file a written reply to the State’s response to the habeas corpus petition. After review, we affirm the judgment of the habeas corpus court.

 

Lopez v. Sharp,  No. M2022-00679-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 3, 2023).  This appeal involves a claim for adverse possession. Gilbert Lopez and his wife Wendy Lopez claimed ownership of a 1.25 acre parcel of land (“Lot 39”) adjacent to their property under the theory of common law adverse possession. Deidra Sharp, owner of a tract also adjacent to Lot 39, presented evidence of her unencumbered title to Lot 39. Ms. Sharp established that she and her predecessors in title had paid taxes on Lot 39 and argued that the Lopezes did not prove their possession was uninterrupted, continuous, exclusive, or adverse for the requisite twenty year period. After a bench trial, the trial court found that the Lopezes did not “indicate ownership of [Lot 39] nor did [they] do anything that would rise to the level of more than a trespass.” The trial court resolved the conflicting testimony by making explicit credibility determinations in favor of Ms. Sharp and her witnesses. The trial court also held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-2-110(a), which generally bars a claim to real estate when the claimant has failed to pay taxes on the claimed property, applies to bar the adverse possession claim. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

 

In Re Lucas L., No. M2020-01614-COA-R3-JV, p. 4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 5, 2022). The father of a child appeals the trial court’s finding that the child was dependent and neglected and the victim of severe abuse. Discerning no error, we affirm.

 

Haynes v Perry County, Tennessee, No. M2020-01448-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. April 25, 2022). A gunshot victim filed a tort action against a county, alleging misconduct on the part of a sheriff’s deputy. The plaintiff asserted that the county was liable under both the Governmental Tort Liability Act and Tennessee Code Annotated § 8-8-302. The county moved to dismiss the complaint. The county argued that it was immune from liability under either the discretionary function exception or the public duty doctrine. The trial court dismissed the complaint. We conclude that, because the deputy sheriff’s actions as alleged in the complaint were operational in nature, the county is not immune from liability under the Governmental Tort Liability Act. The complaint also contains sufficient factual allegations of reckless misconduct such that the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine could apply. So we vacate the dismissal.

 

Debow v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-00471-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Ct. Crim. App. April 8, 2022). The Petitioner, Billy Gene DeBow, appeals the Hickman County Circuit Court’s summary dismissal of his pro se petition seeking habeas corpus relief from his first-degree murder conviction. On appeal, the Petitioner argues that the habeas corpus court abused its discretion by dismissing his petition without ruling on the merits of his claims and that he is entitled to habeas corpus relief1 because his judgment is void and his sentence is illegal. Upon review, we affirm the judgment summarily dismissing the petition.

 

James R. Wilson v. State of Tennessee, No. M2021-00419-CCA-R3-HC (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 2, 2022). In 1999, a Davidson County jury convicted the Petitioner, James R. Wilson, of first degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery.  His convictions were affirmed on appeal, as was the subsequent denial of his petition for post-conviction relief.  The Petitioner’s first habeas corpus petition was denied, and the denial was affirmed on appeal.  While this petition was still pending, the Petitioner filed a writ of error coram nobis, which the court summarily dismissed, and the dismissal was affirmed on appeal.  The Petitioner filed this, his second petition for habeas corpus relief contending that the he was entitled to relief based upon the State’s oral motion to amend the indictment to change the offense date from November 14 to November 13.  The habeas corpus court summarily dismissed the petition.  Shortly thereafter, the Petitioner filed a “Motion for New Trial.”  Several months later, he requested a hearing on his motion.  The State opposed the motion, stating that there was no procedure by which the Petitioner could file a “Motion for New Trial” from the habeas corpus proceeding and stating the Petitioner’s claims were meritless.  The habeas corpus court agreed and denied the “Motion for New Trial.”  On appeal, the Petitioner contends that the habeas corpus court erred because it improperly dismissed his habeas corpus petition.  After a thorough review of the record and relevant authorities, we conclude that the Petitioner did not timely file his notice of appeal.  Accordingly, the appeal is dismissed.

 

Understanding the Limitations and Use of the Information Found in This Book

Tennessee’s trial judges resolve hundreds of thousands of legal and factual issues in tens of thousands of cases every single year.  No appeal is filed in the vast percentage of those cases, indicating that while the “losing” party may not like a ruling on a particular issue, that party understands there was an appropriate reason for the judge’s decision or, at a minimum, the judge was acting within his or her discretion.

 

Of course, a small number of decisions of trial judges do result in an appeal. Experienced trial lawyers know that the number of cases appealed out of a particular trial judge’s court does not, in and of itself, reveal much about the trial judge. For example, some judges hear more complex cases than others, and those cases are more likely to be appealed. Convictions in child sex abuse cases are frequently appealed, as are many criminal cases resulting in long sentences. There are a large number of parental rights termination cases that find their way to the appellate courts.  Judges who routinely try those types of cases will, other things being equal, see more of their cases reviewed by appellate courts than judges who do not see such cases.

 

Second, certain litigants (and certain lawyers) are more likely to appeal a case than others.  Thus, judges who have those litigants or lawyers regularly appear in their courtrooms will find more cases reviewed by the appellate courts.

 

For these and other reasons, the reader is cautioned not to read too much into the number of cases appealed from a court.  Stated differently, there is no reason to believe that a judge who has ten cases reviewed by an appellate court in a single year is a “worse” judge than one who has one case appealed, or that a judge who has three cases appealed is a “better” judge than one who has nine cases appealed.

 

Next, the number of times a judge’s ruling is reversed by an appellate court is not necessarily indicative of the quality of his or her work. For example, experienced lawyers know that there are “holes in the law,” i.e., cases where there is no law directly on point and the judge is forced to predict what an appellate court would rule on the issue. The fact that a judge decided an open legal issue one way and an appellate court decided it another way does not mean that the trial judge was “wrong” or does not understand the law. It simply means that the trial judge had a different view of what the law should be than the appellate court that decided the issue. A trial judge is not blessed with a crystal ball that can with 100 percent accuracy forecast how an appellate court will rule on an undecided legal issue.

 

In addition, the trial court is sometimes not provided with the same in-depth legal arguments and law that is supplied to the appellate court by the parties, or which is provided by law clerks at the appellate level (many trial courts do not have law clerks). The trial judge may have reached the same conclusion as the appellate court if he or she had been supplied with additional law or argument.

 

Finally, the law changes constantly, and the trial judge may rule on a case based on today’s law, which may evolve between the time of that ruling and the issuance of an opinion of the appellate court. In such cases, the reversal of the case by the appellate court is a question of timing of the original court decision as compared to changes in the law, not one of error by the trial court.

 

So, what is the value of this book?  How can the trial lawyer use it to help his or her clients given the limitations expressed above? Permit me to digress slightly.

 

You have seen the coffee cups or t-shirts that proclaim, “A good lawyer knows the law, but a great lawyer knows the judge.”

 

Some read this phrase as suggesting that the “great lawyer” is one who has an improper relationship with the judge – that he or she can use a personal relationship to improperly influence the judge.  But most lawyers know better.  Most lawyers understand that “knowing the judge” means knowing the judge’s background, preferences concerning the presentation of evidence (including exhibits), arguments of motions, drafting of proposed orders, and given that experience, how he or she is likely to rule on a particular issue.  “Knowing the judge” also means knowing the local rules, local forms, local customs, and what things irritate the judge (and every judge is irritated by at least one thing that lawyers or litigants may do).

 

Many lawyers, particularly those in more rural areas of the state or who limit their practice to one area of law, understand the personality and preferences of the judges they see on a regular basis. Many of these lawyers may have a fair advantage appearing before that judge. (The advantage is “fair” because it results from experience and knowledge.)  That advantage – knowing how the judge thinks and his or her preferences – is not outcome-determinative, but it still may be an advantage, similar to a sports team playing on their home field.

 

Why did I say it “may” be an advantage, given what I said earlier about the benefits of “knowing the judge?”  Because simply knowing the judge’s thought processes and preferences is not enough. You still need to have the law and the facts on your client’s side.  And you need to be prepared to be able to give the judge what he or she needs to know to make a ruling.

 

So, the purpose of “The Book” is to give Tennessee lawyers case-related information to help them understand the trial judge who will rule on their client’s case or preside over a jury trial. By looking at past appellate court rulings arising from cases decided by the trial judge, anyone unfamiliar with a judge can get a “feel” for the judge. The case data contained herein does not compare with daily or weekly appearances in front of the judge on issues like a given case, but it is readily available information that give you an idea of how the judge has ruled in the past on a variety of matters.

 

The cases included are those originally decided by the trial judge that were in appellate court opinions released on or after January 1, 2022.  Note that there are a substantial number of judges who first took office in 2022 and thus it is reasonable to assume that there will be no appellate decisions for such judges until late 2023 or 2024.

 

License

"The Book" - Information on Tennessee Trial Judges Copyright © 2023 by BirdDog Law, LLC. All Rights Reserved.