Tony A. Childress, Chancellor

Biography

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.

 

State of Tennessee v. Carter, No. W2023-00448-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. Jan. 5, 2024).  Defendant, Lanoris Cordell Carter, appeals his Lake County Circuit Court conviction for tampering with evidence. He argues on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. Defendant asserts that throwing items out of a car window during an attempted traffic stop such that law enforcement could not recover the items is “mere abandonment” rather than concealment or destruction for purposes of the evidence tampering statute. After review, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

 

Stark v. McClean, No. W2023-00145-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2023).  In a prior appeal, we addressed multiple issues connected to a judgment that was entered following a bench trial. Among other things, we affirmed the trial court’s determination that one of the Defendants in this litigation should be held liable for breach of fiduciary duty, but we also rejected multiple issues raised by the Plaintiffs in pursuit of additional relief. As part of our disposition, we remanded the case for further proceedings with respect to matters of costs and expenses under Tennessee Code Annotated section 35-15- 1004, as well as prejudgment interest. After the trial court entered orders on remand addressing these issues, the Plaintiffs filed the present appeal, chiefly arguing (a) that they are entitled to 100% of their costs and expenses and (b) that the trial court erred in the amount of prejudgment interest it awarded them. Having reviewed the record transmitted to us on appeal, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

 

State of Tennessee v. Johnson, No. W2022-00234-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn. Crim. App. May 10, 2023).  The Defendant, Miron D. Johnson, was convicted by a Dyer County jury of evading arrest, a Class D felony; misdemeanor evading arrest; felony reckless endangerment; and driving on a revoked license, fourth offense. On appeal, the Defendant contends that the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions for felony evading arrest and felony reckless endangerment. Relative to his felony evading arrest conviction, the Defendant specifically argues that his conduct did not create a risk of death or injury to others. For his felony reckless endangerment conviction, the Defendant argues that his vehicle was not used as a deadly weapon and that the threat of death or serious bodily injury was not imminent. The Defendant further contends that the trial court erred by imposing fines without making findings regarding the Defendant’s ability to pay. Following our review, we affirm the judgments of the trial court.

 

Prichard v. PrichardNo. W2022-00728-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 31, 2023). This appeal arises from a divorce case. The husband filed a petition for divorce, and the wife filed a counter-petition. The trial court entered a final decree of divorce dividing the marital estate and granting the divorce in the wife’s favor on the grounds of adultery and inappropriate marital conduct. The husband appeals. We affirm as modified.

 

Webb v. Webb, No. W2021-01227-COA-R3-CV  (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 27, 2023). A husband and wife divorced after a short marriage. The trial court awarded a disproportionate share of the marital property to the husband. The wife challenges the court’s division and its denial of her request for attorney’s fees. Discerning no reversible error, we affirm.

 

Stark v. McLean, No. W2020-00086-COA-R3-CV, p. 7 (Tenn. Ct. App. June 1, 2022) (memorandum opinion).  This appeal involves the consideration of several issues contested among family members, including those pertaining to the fiduciary duties owed by a son who served as a trustee of trusts created by his parents. The trial court granted significant monetary relief to the son’s sisters following a bench trial, including for conversion and breach of fiduciary duty, but it rejected other aspects of the sisters’ requested relief. The son presently maintains that he should be absolved of liability for his breach of fiduciary duties, whereas his sisters complain that the trial court did not award them sufficient relief. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm in part, reverse in part, vacate in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.

 

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.

 

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