Judge Rachel L. Bell: Fair Justice and Transparency, part 2
Criminal courtroom observation

Judge Bell reading defendants their consitutional rights in the jail holding cells

Judge Bell reading defendants their consitutional rights in the jail holding cells.
(photo by Deborah A. Culp)

Part two of my courtroom observation with Judge Rachel L. Bell’s proved to be even more educational than the first time around. Now I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the literal traffic jam of getting onto an elevator to get upstairs. Upon entering the Justice A.A. Birch Building everyone is required to go through the metal detectors and screening process. Unless the courtroom that you’re reporting to is on the first floor (nine times out of 10), a lengthy wait for elevator access may be the beginning of a day in court. It seemed like there was a line and some form of boarding order, but it wasn’t. Court personnel, attorneys, law enforcement officials and those reporting to court all clamor for an elevator.

This part of the process can be a key factor or hindrance in the overall flow of everyone’s day in court.

Once I was able to get to the designated courtroom, I entered to a full house and a hubbub of activity. The courtroom docket check-in starts at 9:15 am, with Judge Bell’s full staff identifying all the criminal defense attorneys that represent the defendants on the docket and ensuring all have talked to the Assistant District Attorney, who is the prosecutor of each case, to receive the initial offer of settlement. Pre-court negotiations of settlement and discussion were definitely in full swing on day one of my criminal court observation when Judge Bell took her place on the bench—after which it was determined that cases were still being worked on and there was nothing quite ready for her to hear.

The wait can include anything from the defense attorneys and the assistant district attorney preparing their cases by talking with the police officers, victims and or waiting on witnesses to arrive—to dismissals and re-scheduling, to binding cases over to the grand jury on information or waivers—or the simpler but time consuming waits for prisoners to be transported to the holding cells or defense attorneys and prisoners participating in pre-court conferences. The latter takes place in the area located behind the courtroom. In short, there could be many reasons that cases are not actually ready during the docket check-in time at 9:15 am, and there aren’t bad reasons nor should anyone be nailed to the proverbial cross. These reasons and others are merely small bubbles in any judge’s court tapestry.

While still in the learning curve and attentively observing, taking it in bit by bit like a hungry sponge, I experienced another amazing first. Judge Bell went into the holding cell area (which is often called the bull-pen) greeting the prisoners and reading them their constitutional, legal rights as a group. This is another professional and time saving tactic she chooses to utilize. Even this approach was genuine and even more humane when the judge discovered one of the prisoners lying on the floor with his head resting on a roll of toilet paper in the holding cell. She immediately asked him if “he was okay and did he need medical attention?” Fortunately he turned out to be okay, perhaps tired but well enough to proceed.

Children visit Judge Bell's courtroom with their father

Children visit Judge Bell’s courtroom with their father. (photo by Deborah A. Culp)

As this day in General Sessions Court (what Judge Bell often calls ‘The People’s Court’) segued well into the day, Judge Bell’s legal savvy and extensive knowledge of the law presided over a bevy of cases, and no two were the same. I cannot go into too much detail, but let’s just say that I listened to, watched and picked apart (in my head) legal practices that ranged from bond reduction hearings, probation violation hearings and preliminary hearings for defendants charged with serious drug, robbery, assault, burglary, theft of merchandise, and sex registry violations including but not limited to a gamete of other criminal cases. Some cases were satisfied from the first threshold, and others were bound over to the grand jury.

Now that is a synopsis of what took place each day ‘in court.’ Judge Bell’s day doesn’t end when her last case is heard. Her work responsibilities continue after the last case has been heard. There is so much more to share and the highlights were many. One of the defendants brought his beautiful young children to court, and no doubt shared the light-hearted humor and a pleasant surprise that day. Judge Bell invited the children to come closer to the bench and talk with her. They were delighted beyond measure to see a judge up close on the bench. They enjoyed their impromptu visit and when leaving, one of the kids spoke to her in pure child-like fashion: “I like your glasses, Judge.” Everyone in the courtroom laughed at the innocent comfort and light-heartedness of this heartfelt interaction.

A couple which stood out for me while shadowing Judge Bell included: 1) Watching her make good use of her time in between cases of the day’s docket by preparing paperwork for relevant cases and the pro-se indigency docket to be heard later that afternoon at 2 pm, and the next General Sessions Music City Community Court, Saturday Court dockets (coming up November 19. 2) Observing her work practically seamlessly in concert with her supporting staff. Most successful ventures are carried out with the help of a well-coordinated team. Judge Bell is surrounded by vested members of the probation department, court officers, legal clerks, her executive administrative assistant, criminal defense attorneys, members of both the Davidson County Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.

“I have a great staff and we work as a team while understanding the importance of efficiency, consistency and effectiveness,” said Judge Bell. “As stated in Part 1- of your courtroom observations, I run my courtroom pursuant to our General Sessions Court Local Rules that were adopted October 15, 2009 which were reserved to allow each judge to conduct their courtroom as they see fit. As a young lawyer, I remember having to wait through 2-3 cases before I was able to get my initial plea agreement offer for my client from the Assistant District Attorney (ADA). At times I had to wait behind all the other lawyers in front of me and hope the judge did not start hearing another case so I would not have to wait again. This process sometimes lasted more than an hour. It is important to me to allow all the defense attorneys a chance to gain access to the ADA to receive their client’s initial offer for plea agreement, for all the defendants, police officers, witnesses, victims to check in with the court before I start issuing capiases, granting motions for case dismissals and to determine which cases are ready for hearing. A lot of the time lawyers are handling several other cases in multiple courtrooms and there are times police officers are testifying in other hearings. Every day, I allow time for docket check in and settlement and discussion for the first docket scheduled in the courtroom and usually do not take a lunch break until around 1:30 pm if all cases are not resolved for the day.”

When I asked Judge Bell to tell me the dockets set for the week, she explained in detail and showed me the docket schedule along with the case dispositions: “This is the Felony Jail Docket week for defendants that were arrested and charged with a Felony in Davidson County during the arrest period from Wednesday, October 19, 2016 at 4:01 am through Tuesday, November 1, 2016 at 4 am, and the day starts with the 9:15 am Felony Jail Docket with several other dockets set throughout the week, including: 11 am Probation Return Docket; 11:30 am Under-Advisement Plea Docket; 12:30 pm Felony Jail Review Docket; and the 2 pm Pro-se Indigency Docket.”

Judge Bell and her Division VIII staff. Pictured, Court-Officers Fred Kilpatrick and Forrest Garret, Probation Officers- Robin Lively and Jackie London, Criminal Courtroom Deputy Clerk- Carlos Deleon, and Courtroom Security- Neal Hargrove.

Judge Bell and her Division VIII staff. Pictured, Court-Officers Fred Kilpatrick and Forrest Garret, Probation Officers- Robin Lively and Jackie London, Criminal Courtroom Deputy Clerk- Carlos Deleon, and Courtroom Security- Neal Hargrove. (photo by Deborah A. Culp)

Criminal Courtroom 5C, Judge Bell, Felony Jail Docket

Monday October 31:
9:15 am — Felony Jail Docket, 86 cases on the docket, 31 defendants
11 am — Probation Return Docket, 41 cases on the docket, 35 defendants
11:30 am — Under Advisement Plea Docket, 129 cases on the docket, 124 defendants (*same docket the G.S. Music City Community Court holds on Saturdays every 4-6 weeks — Judge Bell’s access to justice initiative)
12:30 pm — Felony Jail Review Docket, 34 cases on the docket, 15 defendants

Tuesday, November 1:
9:15 am — Felony Jail Docket, 47 cases on the docket, 19 defendants
9:55 am — Felony Jail Review Docket, 52 cases on the docket, 20 defendants

Wednesday, November 2:
9:15 am Felony Jail Docket, 61 cases on the docket, 25 defendants
2 pm Pro Se Indigency Motion Docket, 554 cases on the docket, 129 defendants (*same docket the G.S. Music City Community Court holds on Saturdays every 4-6 weeks- Judge Bell’s access to justice initiative)

Thursday, November 3:
9:15 am Felony Jail Docket, 44 cases on the docket, 23 defendants
11 am Probation Return Docket, 31 cases, 27 defendants

Friday, November 4:
9:15 am Felony Jail Docket, 72 cases on the docket, 28 defendants
My observations allowed me a first hand, all access viewing of fairness to pushing the envelope due to one honorable judge who literally makes a difference by following the law to the letter, unbiased, with compassion and extreme fairness for all who enter her courtroom. If there were a vote, I agree with Judge Bell that General Sessions Court is ‘The People’s Court