Update: Audio Recording and Transcript are “Property of the Court”

THEN WHY ARE THEY NOT IN THE COURT’S POSSESSION?

by Sharon Rondeau

Connie Turner works in the office of the Administrative Director of the TAOC

(Sep. 6, 2014) — In an article dated September 5, 2014, The Post & Email detailed difficulties encountered in obtaining public records under Open Records requests in the state of Tennessee over the last two weeks.

As of 1:00 p.m. EDT on Friday, The Post & Email had not received a response from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (TAOC) as to whether or not the purchase of an audio recording and/or typed transcript could be completed with the court reporter responsible after speaking with Connie Turner at 10:00 a.m. that day.  Turner had promised to research contact information for Belinda Moore, the privately-contracted court reporter who recorded and transcribed the content of the August 19, 2014 sentencing hearing for CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.), who was sentenced to three years in prison by Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood for alleging that judges, prosecutors and grand jury foremen were breaking the law.

After approaching the McMinn County, TN grand jury on March 18, 2014 with a petition for redress of grievances, the grand jury instead issued a presentment including four crimes allegedly having occurred over a 19-month period of time, although no police reports or criminal complaints were filed with law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office.

Fitzpatrick was charged with aggravated perjury, extortion, harassment and stalking and convicted on the first two charges on June 24, 2014.

Moore operates a court-reporting company in which she is the sole employee, according to public information.  She was very prompt in answering our inquiries but stated that the TAOC would have to approve our obtaining of the transcripts.

Earlier on Friday, The Post & Email had spoken with McMinn County Criminal Court Chief Clerk Rhonda Cooley, who said the court did not possess a copy of the recording or the transcript we desired to purchase.  Cooley told us during a pleasant 20-minute conversation that “eventually” they would be made available for the file, but that she was not familiar with the court reporter hired to cover the Fitzpatrick hearing and did not check her identification before she began her work on August 19.

At approximately 2:10 p.m. EDT on Friday, we called Turner a second time to report that we had located Ms. Moore’s business and communicated with her.  Reaching Turner’s voice mail, we related Moore’s recommendation that we seek TAOC approval in order to purchase the recording and/or transcript.

At 3:15 p.m. EDT, Ms. Turner returned our call and stated that the TAOC does not have the authority to grant release of transcripts.  Although stating that the recording and transcript are “public records,” Turner said that they are technically the property of the court for which they were made.  Turner stated that she had placed a call to Cooley but was told that she was “not available.”

A question which arises is why court reporters charge fees for their products if those products are “property of the court,” a public institution paid for by the taxpayers.  Who should receive the money:  the court or the court reporter?

Moore quoted us a fee of $200 for the typed transcript, including postage.  She did not quote the cost for the audio recording.

We responded that we had also contacted Cooley and that she was aware that we were seeking the transcripts for that particular hearing.

Turner added that obtaining permission to buy the records in question “might involve a judge’s order.”

During the hearing, Blackwood was noted by several eyewitnesses to have said, “I’m sick and tired of people coming in here talking about their constitutional rights” and “Who cares if the grand jury foreman is serving illegally?  Who cares?  So what?”

One of the points in Fitzpatrick’s numerous petitions was that the grand jury foreman was serving illegally, having been appointed by former Criminal Court Judge Amy Armstrong Reedy, for three consecutive terms.  The foreman, Jeffrey Cunningham, was the prosecution’s star witness but denied having formally “accused” Fitzpatrick of anything.

During the sentencing, Blackwood also called Fitzpatrick “a moral coward,” which was characterized by one eyewitness as evidence of “a vendetta” against Fitzpatrick.  Blackwood’s statements were also reported in The Chattanooga Times Free Press, whose reporter interviewed some of the same eyewitnesses as The Post & Email.

The spokeswoman for the TAOC was unwilling to provide a comment on Blackwood’s remarks and whether or not his comportment upheld the ethics standards for judges in Tennessee.  She has also failed to respond to two requests from The Post & Email for a phone appointment to discuss our research into Tennessee courts and the judicial selection of the grand jury foreman “from wherever they choose.”

Information from a link from the TAOC website to the federal courts states that “It is the media who inform and educate the public about the courts, spark discussion and debate about their work, instill public trust and confidence in the institution and its function, and help protect judicial independence. These are worthwhile and important pursuits.”

The Board of Judicial Conduct, formerly the Court of the Judiciary, is loathe to formally charge a judge with wrongdoing even when overwhelming evidence exists.  Previous reports issued by the Court of the Judiciary show that a very small percentage of judges about whom complaints are filed are disciplined.

In Tennessee, media coverage of any hearing is at the “discretion of the presiding judge.”

Fitzpatrick has called the judges’ stranglehold on the courts, and therefore the people, of eastern Tennessee “the dictatorship of the judiciary.”

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