- Law Cases
by Sharon Rondeau
(Nov. 29, 2011) — Recently The Post & Email spoke with Karen Caldwell, a 26-year-old mother who has been fighting for her constitutional rights against the corrupt Tennessee judicial machine for two years in an effort to regain custody of both of her young girls who were taken away in what Caldwell believes was a retaliatory, vengeful act carried out by several judges in Madison County, TN.
The sisters are living apart from their mother and from each other, as Caldwell has stated on her website:
The majority does not dare want to believe that the body that is made to and has the utmost power to protect us and punish wrong doers, actually can, has and will act corruptly. That corruption has destroyed my life for nearly two years. Mostly it has abused my daughters, my daughters have temporarily lost their mother at the hands of three members of our judiciary. (Madison Co.) From the day they were born (Jozie 9/3/04 & Andi Faye 1/28/08) they have lived in my home, they have lived together and for nearly two years they have lived without me and without each other.
On November 16, 2011, a mainstream media article reported that “Tennessee legislators” had warned judges in their state to “change their ways” and cited the policing agency, the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, for failing to properly discipline errant judges. The Post & Email has contacted several members of the Tennessee legislature as well as Governor Bill Haslam about judicial corruption in Monroe and Roane Counties, specifically but has received not one response. Haslam’s staffers have also refused to respond to our messages regarding endemic judicial corruption throughout the state.
On May 5, 2010, Caldwell filed a lawsuit against Madison County Chancellor James F. Butler for allowing multiple hearing dates to be set aside indefinitely by an attorney with whom Butler had worked previously. Caldwell told The Post & Email that she has been told by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) that existing state laws “do not apply to judges.” She maintains that the judiciary in Tennessee has become political and is full of cronyism. “I’ve been through six judges, and I’ve never asked any judge to recuse himself,” she said.
Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, who has been sitting in solitary confinement in the Monroe County jail for more than two months, was told in a telephone conversation by a TBI agent that the only way a complaint against a judge could be prosecuted was if the District Attorney General ordered it. Fitzpatrick has described District Attorney General Steve Bebb, who was formerly a judge, as “a criminal actor.”
When The Post & Email spoke with TBI agent Skip Elrod many months ago, he told us that complaints against judges could be made and investigated, but Elrod never followed up or responded to our requests for investigations into the conduct of Judge Carroll L. Ross and Judge Amy Reedy despite evidence of criminal wrongdoing. We have kept Agent Elrod’s identity private until now.
When it was discovered that a grand jury foreman had never been sworn in over a 27-year period, we asked the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (TAOC) to whom that fact should be reported but received no response.
The following is Caldwell’s account of her ordeal with the Madison County, TN judiciary and juvenile court system.
I have two daughters, Jozie and Andi Faye. There are two different fathers. I was never married to Jozie’s father.
Early in 2009, I had caught my husband selling drugs out of our home. I started investigating him and found out that he was just a con artist. He had supposedly been a mortgage broker, but he was actually selling drugs. He put on an act to be able to stay at home every day. When I found out that he was selling drugs, I went out and got a job at a law firm downtown as a bankruptcy paralegal. I worked there for from June 2009 until May 5, 2010 and started saving up money to leave him. I went to Jozie’s father in November 2009 and told him that I’d caught Tim selling drugs and that we were separating. John had always been an alright Dad, but he had never kept Jozie very much. I told him, “I need you to keep Jozie for the first week in January. I don’t want to ruin the girls’ Christmas, but I’m going to be filing for divorce then.”
Well, John turned around and went to Tim. When I left John, I took a bunch of journals of his that would make your skin crawl. After I told John that I was going to file for divorce, he went to Tim and said, “Karen is going to file for divorce on you. If you’ll give me those journals of mine that Karen has, then I’ll start keeping Jozie from Karen, and I’ll testify that Karen’s never had Jozie and never wanted anything to do with Jozie.”
I guess his brain had left his head for a minute, because I had always taken Jozie to school every day; I was head room-mother; I took Jozie to all her doctors’ and dentist appointments. I took her to church every Sunday and Wednesday. I have many, many witnesses, 20 of whom thought enough of it to come to court and testify.
So Tim got a heads-up that I was going to file for divorce. Tim’s father is the head dean of the largest Christian college this side of the country, Union University. It’s a very, very thick, politically Christian-rooted university. When Tim found out, he filed an order of protection on me by saying that I had tried kill our daughter by brushing her teeth with adult toothpaste. I went to court and represented myself on that and had it dismissed. He filed divorce papers the same day. When I came home from work, my daughter’s crib was gone; a lot of her clothes were gone. I called him and said, “Where is Andi Faye?” and he said, “She’s with me and my parents, and you’re not welcome to come over here.”
Of course, I went over there, and I said, “I’m not leaving without my daughter,” and Tim’s father came out and said, “If you don’t leave, you’re going to be arrested. I’ve already called the police.”
I’m smart enough to know that I’m not going to be able to help my daughter in jail. The next day, I filed a motion for custody. I had been investigating Tim for a month, and I had followed him around and had pictures of him selling drugs, taking drugs, and with his firearm, and I had printed off his criminal record showing that he was a two-time felon. I did not know that when I married him, which is grounds for an annulment. But that didn’t matter, so I filed for divorce.
The day I found out that he even had a criminal record, we had been in Nashville. I had begged him not to go out, but he went anyway. I was awakened at 4:00 a.m. by a call from his parents saying he was in jail for a DUI. We were two hours away from Jackson. They had picked him up. I said, “Well, we’ll just hire a lawyer, and he’ll be fine.” And they said, “Oh, no, he’s going to have to spend some time in jail; this is his third DUI.” I had no clue. I had to pick myself up off the floor when they said that.
I filed in court and exhibited all the evidence: the pictures of him selling drugs, doing drugs, him with his firearm, his criminal record, an affidavit from me stating that my daughter had been taken from my home and I was not allowed to see her. We have statutes in Tennessee that say that if parents cannot agree to a temporary parenting plan or if one parent has withheld the child from the other parent, they’re not even eligible for custody for a temporary time. I entered all of this into my motion for custody. I set a hearing date, and it was continued. I filed another one a couple of months later, and I set a hearing date for that, and it was continued. I got a letter in the mail saying that it had been continued by a certain female attorney. I filed a third emergency motion for custody. By this third motion, I hadn’t laid eyes on my daughter for five months. This was January through May of 2010.
I got a hearing date for July 13. I sent a notice to the judge stating, “Due to the extreme circumstances and the fact that I feel that my daughter is in danger, I’m respectfully requesting an expedited hearing date, as it’s already been five months, and the date isn’t until eight months from now. According to the statutes and the law, I should have visitation with my daughter.” The judge wrote me back saying that I couldn’t set any hearing dates pro se and that I’d have to contact Tim’s counsel to change the hearing date. But on the bottom of his letter, he carbon-copied two different attorneys.
When my husband wanted to beat me to the punch and file for divorce, his father went all over Jackson looking for an attorney who could file the divorce papers immediately. They found a lawyer just to file the papers, but that lawyer never filed a motion to withdraw. There was never a hearing held on the withdrawal. There was never an order signed allowing that withdrawal. Another female attorney from the judge’s former partnership, Lisa Houston, came in and continued my set hearing date without giving me another date.
On May 5, 2010, I sued James Butler in federal court pro se and filed a Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. On that same day, I was fired from my job at the law firm, and the judge didn’t recuse himself or do anything for three months. Three months later, he designated the Circuit Court judge to hear my case. In Tennessee, when a judge recuses himself, they have to contact the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (TAOC) to designate an unbiased judge. Instead, he contacted the Circuit Court judge, Roger A. Page, who was .2 miles away, and designated him to hear my case.
At that point in time, I did not care. All I wanted to do was to get in front of a judge because I knew my character and Tim’s character. I was squeaky-clean. I had no criminal record. I was head room-mother for my eldest daughter’s class for three years in a row. I had substitute-taught in her school over 25 times; I am an exemplary mother. I was raised without a mother, and I do everything I can for my daughters to give them everything that I missed. I knew that Tim was a two-time felon and a three-time DUI and didn’t even have a driver’s license. I had pictures of him selling drugs. I knew I could get custody of my daughters, so I didn’t care which judge heard my case. At the time, I also knew that the statute governing custody has ten parts, and the last part is about the ability of the person to facilitate and encourage a loving relationship between the child and other parties, and their past and present ability to do so. Well, past evidence was that he had kept her from me for ten months. So I knew, hands down, that I would have custody of her.
John, Jozie’s father, kept his end of the bargain with Tim. He kept her from me. When I told him to keep her for the first week in January so I could move out, he wouldn’t give her back to me. He kept her for the entire month of January and the entire month of February. On February 20, I went over to Juvenile Court, which governs children who are born out of wedlock, and I filed a petition to be heard in court because he had kept my child from me. By the time we got to court, on July 13, there had been so many continuances. By that time, I had sued the Chancery Court judge for allowing the attorney, who was not the attorney of record, to continue my case.
I finally got in front of the Juvenile Court judge on July 13, and she let me have it for suing the other judge. The first words out of her mouth were, “I understand you may think you’re a lawyer, but until you graduate from law school or hire a lawyer, you need to sit down and be real quiet, because you’re bein’ real close to practicing law here, and you’re floatin’ on real thin ice, and you don’t want to mess with me; I’m the judge.” I have it all on tape. It’s skin-crawling. For one, the lady sounds belligerently drunk. She was just awful to me, and several times she was screaming over her bench at me that she was the judge and I’m just a party to the suit.
She asked me who my daughter would feel more comfortable with regarding a guardian ad litem: a man or a woman. I said “A woman,” and she designated a man. The guardian ad litem, Joseph T. Howell, would not call me; he would not come and meet with me; he would not come to my home. He would go out to John’s house and see them and talk to them, and it came out later in testimony that he told my daughter that all her animals were going to die if she came to live with me. He told her that nobody was going to take care of her animals at her dad’s house if she came and lived with me. My daughter is the one who told the judge this about six months later. She was almost six at the time.
We had two hearing dates: July 13 and August 4. At the end of the second hearing, the judge gave full custody of my daughter to her father. In Tennessee, there is a statute that says that the mother of a child born out of wedlock is given full custody. When a father is established for a child, you have to go through a litany of different things: there has to be a paternity test; there has to be an order of parentage; all of the father’s information to be put on the birth certificate must be collected. None of that was done. I know he is her father, but as far as the courts know, he is a stranger. The court broke the law when it came to a child born out of wedlock. They gave full custody of my daughter to her father.
People testified that I had had her full-time. He had had her two and sometimes three nights a week, because I would let him see her. I encouraged that relationship. I wanted him to see her. Teachers testified of it; multiple people testified; one witness got on the stand and testified that John had gone to them just the week before and asked them to lie under oath in court that day. He was never reprimanded; nothing was ever done about his trying to witness-tamper like that. At the end of the hearing, he was given full custody of my daughter and was allowed to move her an hour away. The judge put no findings of fact in her order. According to Tennessee statute, she gave my daughter to a stranger. He was not her father on the birth certificate, and there had never been an order of parentage done.
I was driving two hours a week to see my daughter at school to have lunch with her for 20 minutes. I hadn’t seen her in months. The judge, Christy Little, signed restraining orders against me saying that I could no longer go to see her at school. She also signed a restraining order against my boyfriend, who is a 20-year business owner. He owns the largest pawn shop in Jackson and loans out money every day for a living. He’s in a $2,000,000 building which takes up a complete block in downtown Jackson.
She signed an order restraining both of us in August. On September 23 and 24, I went in front of the judge who had been designated to hear my divorce case with Andi Faye and Tim. We had a two-day trial; I had 11 or 15 witnesses come, my daughter’s teachers; all kinds of people came and testified that I was an exemplary mother. The only thing that was testified bad about me was that I was maybe a little overprotective. Tim admitted to the judge that he was just let out of drug and alcohol rehab; he admitted to the judge that he was a felon; he admitted to the judge that he drove my daughter around without a driver’s license to Ohio; he admitted to keeping her from me for ten months; he told the judge that he planned on living with his parents indefinitely because he couldn’t function normally unless he did. I was home, and I thought, “I’ve got this.” It was awful.
Two days later, I woke up in the middle of the night crying, and I said, “The judge (Roger A. Page) is going to do me in.” He was too good to me during the trial. The attorney would object to something I was saying, and the judge would overrule her; he allowed me to enter all of my evidence…he was very, very courteous to me in trial. But I was scared. Two weeks later, I received his opinion letter which found on all parts in favor of the father. He ruled that I could not see my daughter until I completed eight weeks of anger management.
The Post & Email asked Ms. Caldwell, “Why do you think the judge made such a ruling?” and she responded:
I think it was an attempt to ruin my credibility because I had a pending lawsuit against another judge, and I think he was afraid that I might file something like that against him for doing that. I think that he knew that I would do anything to see my daughter. Anger management was nothing; I had nothing on my record.
“Do these judges retaliate against any citizen who tries to exercise his or her rights?”
About five years ago, a deputy sheriff was fired by the sheriff’s department for allegedly exposing the sheriff’s affair with another law enforcement official’s wife, and the chancery court judge, the same judge that I sued, upheld his firing in court. He appealed it, and the Appeals Court reversed his ruling. He was reinstated, and all of that is in court right now. Other than that, I’ve never heard of anybody suing a judge. I’ve never of anybody being retaliated against because I’ve never heard of anybody standing up for their rights.
“What do you think allowed the situation with the judges to become what it is?”
At 26, I can’t talk too much about the past. But if you look on the Topix forum, there’s a lot of talk about corrupt Tennessee officials. Some people asked, “How do we stand up to this corruption? I don’t want to be retaliated against.” I think that because our system is so politically connected with the DA’s office and the judges, the judges have a godlike persona. When both judges took my children from me, they knew that there was nothing that could be done to them. Here we had the Court of the Judiciary, which is the body that governs judges, and Judge Christy Little is a member…they knew nothing would be done. They are fighting hard to keep the Court of the Judiciary the way it is because of the promise of political power. But it’s the fox guarding the henhouse.
Karen has recently spoken with Tennessee State Senator Mae Beavers and Rep. Eric Watson, Chairmen of their respective Judiciary Committees, about the specter of judicial impeachment. As of press time, she said, “I have high hopes for our Tennessee legislators to act on the actions of the criminal judges in TN. I will be testifying again in January and then meeting with legislators in January as well to discuss impeachment. TN hasn’t had a judicial impeachment since 1958, but I do believe with the proof I can provide, our legislators will be forced to act and impeach this coming year.”
“I will be speaking with Rep. Rick Womick, who is on the Judiciary Committee, and I am going to be meeting with him in January to present my evidence for impeachment of the three judges. I really believe that I’ll be successful in this matter of impeachment. I’m not Republican or Democrat; I’m for what’s right and fair. The members make it into a political thing, but they need to do something about these judges.
I had gone to the state grand jury, and on three separate occasions, I was denied my right to present my case to them by our district attorney, Jerry Woodall. He said, “I’m going to start a TBI investigation into this. Just calm down; forget about the state grand jury; we’ll get a TBI investigation into this.” He sent out a letter to the Special Agent in Charge at the TBI, John Mehr, which I have, asking that an investigation be started. Well, I have the Special Agent in Charge on tape telling me that he had never started an investigation and that the district attorney had called him prior to sending the letter, told him not to do an investigation and that the DA was just trying to get me to quiet down.”
Karen also told The Post & Email that she was ordered to pay child support for her two daughters which exceeded her monthly income. When we commented, “You’ve done an incredible amount of work on your own with elected representatives and others in government. Most people twice your age do not want anything to do with the government,” she responded:
“I almost spent two days in jail for failing to pay my court-ordered child support. I had a stay put on my jail time because it got really ugly in court. Everybody knows that there as no reason to put me in jail. I’ve had a lot of supporters come to court who know what’s going on. The judges and my ex know that you can put me in jail for months and months and months, but the only way they can hurt me is through my children. Let me see my girls. When I go and testify in front of the legislature, my heart is pounding and I haven’t slept the night before. My stomach is in knots, but that’s my only choice when it comes to my children.
Even after I get my daughters back, I am not going to stop fighting for accountability with these judges, because it can happen again.”
The Post & Email said, “People seem to have forgotten that it is our job to police our public servants in all three branches of government. We all have to be involved.”
I think what has happened in Tennessee, and this isn’t an insult to anyone, is that the majority of the people have become ignorant to what is going on. In this town, I was never thought of as anything but an exemplary mother. I can’t even go to my church now because people think that I am dangerous to my children. They’ve been taken from me, and they think no judge is going to take a mother’s children if there isn’t something wrong. They don’t dare think that a judge would act corruptly. And sadly enough, people would never believe it until it’s too late.
The judge ordered that I could not have unsupervised visitation unless I attended an anger management class and a mental evaluation. Well, I’ve taken two mental evaluations, and both of them showed that I am 100% sane and am in no need of anger management.
I think they believe that if I fight long enough and hard enough and loud enough that other people will come forward and it will be the beginning of a crumble. I think they want me to reach a point when I can’t take it anymore. I told myself in the beginning that when all of this is over and I can get some kind of justice for my daughters and other people, that when my daughters think of integrity and courage and to think of their mother, they can know for a fact that “Regardless that I haven’t been able to see my mother, my mother has fought for me, tooth and nail, for as long and hard as she could…” and to strive to have that kind of integrity themselves. It’s not vindictive; it’s not retaliatory; it’s what’s right.
If I can save one other person – man, woman or child – from what the judges have done to me, then I’ll have been successful.
Ms. Caldwell was allowed to spend two hours the day before Thanksgiving with her two daughters.
The Tennessee Bar Association reports that the guardian ad litem for Karen’s older daughter, Mr. Joseph T. Howell, is an attorney.
© 2011, The Post & Email. All rights reserved.
Tags: Judge Amy Reedy, Judge Carroll L. Ross, judicial corruption, juvenile court, Madison County, Madison County Chancellor James F. Butler, Monroe County, order of protection, Rep. Rick Womick, Roane County, Sen. Mae Beavers, solitary confinement, TBI, Tennesse Court of the Judiciary, Tennessee, Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, Tennessee legislature, Union University