Judge Rachel L. Bell: fair justice and transparency, part 1 — Civil Courtroom observation

Judge Bell reviewing and signing orders. (photo by Deborah A. Culp)

Judge Bell reviewing and signing orders. (photo by Deborah A. Culp)

I really learned a lot while spending some focused time shadowing Nashville’s General Session Court Judge, Rachel L. Bell, in Civil Court, including the following information: Generally when a defendant or plaintiff receives notice to appear in court, the time stamp is for 9 am. If you were like I was before and wondering, “How are we all to be seen at that time?” I’m more than happy to demonstrate the actual real time breakdown.

But first let’s begin with how long it may take to get upstairs to the courtroom if you don’t arrive early. My days of Civil Court observation took place on the fifth floor, Courtroom 5D. After clearing security and the metal detector process, I got in line for the elevator bank. After arriving there at 8:30 am, it literally took me 20 minutes to get upstairs! Yes I was more than shocked it took that long to even enter the designated courtroom. I said to myself, “Deborah next time you must arrive even earlier to beat the elevator traffic rush.”

After securing my seat in the crowded gallery of at least 100 or more people waiting their day in court, I sat back and settled in for the order of the day. Simply put, the experience from there ran like a well oiled machine to determine which cases need to be heard by Judge Bell—all with good reason: There is much sorting out and pre-empted (the process of limitations) work to be done before she can effectively and fairly hear cases.

A myriad of attorneys, court clerks and court officers (when necessary) keep order and help everyone to get to the starting point. Some cases are dismissed, others require something more, such as an attorney to speak for either the plaintiff or defendant in question and others are rescheduled. A clear estimate of time spent in a day in court includes, but is not limited to: 1) 8:57 am — court opens with an announcement about the call of the court docket; 2) 9 am — the call of the court docket and the court officer address rules and regulations and professional courteous court ethics (such as no gum chewing, no cell phones, no talking, no interrupting—and to speak through your lawyer, and unless it is your specific case—no speaking out unless called by the court. After the call of the docket around 9:23 am, the court officers announce that the judge will be on the bench for the second call of the docket after time for settlement and discussion. All cases that have not been resolved during the break will be addressed accordingly.

Each case Judge Bell heard the days I observed were “whatever came through the proverbial hoop.” She addressed each case, defendant or plaintiff with respect and empathy, while staying in the lines of the law. I asked Judge Bell to explain her average day for the week. This is what she had to share while showing me a copy of the cases set for the docket and their dispositions.

“When I initially ran for office in 2011, I pledged to the community that I would bring visibility of our courts, access to justice and that I would be transparent,” said Judge Bell. “I am happy and thankful you want to observe my courtroom and allow the community to have an accurate account and more insight. The General Sessions Court has a 12-week rotation, which includes civil, criminal, emergency committals, traffic and citation dockets. This week I presided over the Civil 5D docket. I run my court room in line with the General Sessions Court Local Rule 4.01 that was adopted October 15, 2009 and feel that it is best for docket check-in and matters to have the opportunity to be settled and or resolved before I begin hearing cases.”

To learn more, visit, <gscourt.nashville.gov/about-us/judges/division-viii-judge-rachel-l-bell/>.

An example of Judge Bell’s schedule
Monday, October 24:
1ST Docket Call, 9 am — 41 cases on the docket
Settlement and Discussion — 21 of the 41 cases resolved by either continuances for trial dates to be set, agreed settlements to be presented, dismissals or defaults for defendants that failed to appear
2nd Docket Call — 10:08 am — 20 cases ready to be heard by Judge Bell along with two special set cases at 10 am and 11 am

Tuesday, October 25:
1st Docket Call, 9 am — 33 cases on the docket
Settlement and Discussion — 26 of the 33 cases resolved by either continuances for trial dates to be set, agreed settlements to be presented, dismissals or defaults for defendants that failed to appear
2nd Docket Call, 10:15 am — seven cases ready to be heard by Judge Bell

Wednesday, October 26, 2016:
1st Docket Call, 9 am — 143 cases on the docket
Settlement and Discussion — 116 of 143 cases resolved by either continuances for trial dates to be set, agreed settlements to be presented, dismissals or defaults for defendants that failed to appear
2nd Docket Call, 10:25 am — 27 cases ready to be heard by Judge Bell

Thursday, October 27:
1st Docket Call, 9 am — 147 cases on the docket
Settlement and Discussion — 9:48 am — 128 of 147 cases resolved by either continuance for trial dates to be set, agreed settlements to be presented, dismissals or defaults for defendants that failed to appear
2nd Docket Call — 19 cases ready to be heard by Judge Bell
After courtroom work was concluded, Judge Bell and her staff headed to her chambers. I was able to shadow her and was welcome to come along. In her chambers, she reviewed orders from the morning docket. She also had several lawyers and probation officers come by needing review of paperwork needing to be signed. Judge Bell was also preparing for a panel discussion that evening at 5:30 pm hosted by Belmont University, Ta Nu Delta Sigma Theta Sorority called ‘Know Your Rights.’

Friday, October 28:
1st Docket Call, 9 am — 151 cases on the docket
Settlement and Discussion — 111 of 151 cases resolved by either continuance for trial dates to be set, agreed settlements to be presented or defaults for defendants that failed to appear
2nd Docket Call, 10:15 am — 40 cases ready to be heard by Judge Bell
Judge Bell’s courtroom was visited by Vanderbilt Law students, including: Amanda Blain, David Creasy and their professor, Anne Marie Farmer, attorney. She had a delightful conversation with them about General Sessions Court and expectations from the bench.
After court was concluded, Judge Bell spent time in the office going over paperwork for the next Saturday General Sessions Music City Community Court, Division VIII, including dockets set for November 19—and did a site visit at the Andrew Jackson Boys and Girls Club of Middle Tenn.
So when they ask, how much is Judge Bell working? She is going above and beyond her call of duty—displays a great deal of energy, focus and commitment to serve our community in the way that she does. It certainly seems like she is in line with her purpose, which is being a true vessel for fair and timely justice.