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Friday, December 04, 2020
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Judge's court order halts commissioners' courtroom plans

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Superior Court Judge Hugh Hunt filed a court order on Monday halting
the Sullivan County Commissioners' plans to remodel the second floor
courtroom at the courthouse.

Commissioners' attorney Terry Modesitt said Hunt called him earlier
Monday, asking his email address to send him a copy of the court order
"as a heads up."

Hunt stated in his "Writ of Prohibition and Eviction" that the
courtroom "has been continuously utilized for judicial purposes since
1975, until on or about March 31, when it was appropriated for use by
Sullivan County Community Corrections, by the commissioners."

In the court order, the judge alleged:

• Appropriation was without the prior consent of Hunt.

• Hunt has requested to continue using the courtroom for judicial
purposes and has been denied by the commissioners.

• It is the belief and understanding of Hunt that the commissioners
intend to evict the courts from the use of the courtroom and subdivide
it into office space.

• Considerable funds have been invested in recent years in updating
technology and equipment in the courtroom.

• In addition to its normal judicial usage, the courtroom is essential
for the safe administration of justice, specifically during jury
trials with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The order concluded the commissioners are prohibited from making any
alteration to the courtroom, nor to its adjacent office space, and
shall restore the courts to full possession and usage of same
forthwith.

If you recall, Hunt asked the commissioners last August about
utilizing the second floor courtroom, due to the COVID-19 pandemic,
for an upcoming jury trial.

However, due to a downtown Sullivan fire earlier in the year, the
displaced Community Corrections sought office space in the courthouse,
landing in the second floor courtroom. Community Corrections had also
been working with the commissioners to remodel the courtroom.

Hunt explained he used that courtroom three days a week, because his
clerk that handles small claims is stationed in the office right
behind that court.

"I don't have cubicle space in (Superior) court," he said in August.
"She answers all the small claims questions and handles that
paperwork."

The commissioners made no ruling on his request at the August meeting.

Fast forward to Monday, commissioner Ray McCammon said, "We were
planning to keep a partial courtroom in there to be able to be used.
Did you get any indication (to Modesitt) from him that it was worth
talking to him about anymore? Is it a done deal? What's your
recommendation?"

"It doesn't hurt anything to talk about it," Modesitt replied. "I mean
there's a court order in effect right now. He obviously called me to
give us a heads up. I think he would be approachable in discussing
it."

Davis said he sent a text earlier in the day to Hunt asking if we
could meet in an executive session to explain our plans for the
courtroom. Modesitt said he would contact Hunt and the commissioners
agreed.

Commissioner John Waterman Sr. said he thought Hunt was in agreement
with what was to be done with the courtroom.

"I tried to engage him in conversation a couple of times, called and
left a voicemail … never received an answer," Davis said. "Then I sent
him a text that we were going to meet, but he was going to be out of
town."

"We've got a really nice courtroom here that used to be an
auditorium," McCammon noted. "So when we gained another court because
we had a magistrate, we lost our auditorium. Now we've got three
courtrooms and two judges and no magistrate."

"We have a plan in place to make it a small courtroom," Davis said.

Sullivan County Council member Duane Wampler, who attended Monday's
meeting, offered his thoughts.

"We had three judges and two courtrooms for years," Wampler said.
"They scheduled and worked together to make the thing work. That was
before this courtroom was ever built we're sitting in right now. We've
got a need for the room up there. I think we all need to work together
instead of building more fires. We need to put some fires out.

"I don't know why they can't do small claims down here one day week.
It's a management thing. You can surely make things work. And I know
everybody all over the United States is saying COVID's causing us to
do this, COVID's causing us to do that. But when COVID's gone, then
what are you going to do? You're going to find another excuse not to
use this space in a proper way? I'm sorry, I'm trying to be negative,
but let's be realistic."

Davis explained their plan was to split the room in half, move the
judge's bench forward.

"(Hunt) can do small claims up there, because you don't use the jury
box or use the witness stand," he said.

"We have a court order to cease and desist," McCammon said.

"I still look at it that you're over grounds and buildings, that's
your responsibility," Wampler continued. "I know you've got a court
order and I'm sorry you got that. Everybody needs to work together on
this instead of court orders and everything else."

"Kyle (Perkinson) says he is in an ideal spot right now," Davis said.
"If he can be in the courthouse, everything works better for him and
being close to everything."

Modesitt concluded the discussion, saying he would go ahead with plans
for the executive session to get everybody together and allow them to
explain their viewpoints.

"Then we'll see where we go from there," he said.

The next day, the commissioners scheduled a special meeting at 7 p.m.
Thursday — it will be an open meeting, not an executive session.


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