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The judge explains: Ashe Street Courthouse is on my historic register

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

[email protected]

Two policemen testifying as character witnesses for a felon, a runaway bride, the song writer who sang to get out of jail and a deputy sheriff who used the example of the “Hill Street Blues” to begin his shift are memories of my days at the Ashe Street Courthouse in Johnson City.  Therefore, the announcement in the January 29th edition of the Herald & Tribune that the Washington County Commission would seek to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places was exciting news.

I practiced law in the building as both a private attorney and a Sessions Court Judge.  A former U.S. Post Office, the building started serving as the location of county and state courts in the 1940s before being replaced by the Downtown Centre Courthouse in 1987.  Arriving in Johnson City in 1972, one of my first cases at Ashe Street was a divorce proceeding before Circuit Judge Walter Garland.

In those days before the era of no-fault divorces, the judges required character witnesses who would swear to the litigant’s reputation for “truth and veracity.”  I told my client, who I knew had a felony conviction, that his case was set for hearing and asked him to bring two character witnesses.

My client arrived without any witnesses.  In some anxious moments before his case was called, I walked around the building and discovered two Johnson City policemen who were waiting to testify in a criminal case in Sessions Court. I asked if they knew my client and both said “Yes, we have arrested him a number of times.” I then asked if they could testify to his truthfulness. 

Both thought for a couple of minutes and said, “Whenever we arrest him, he tells the truth – he confesses he has committed the crime.”  It took a few minutes to convince the officers to testify in court on behalf of my client, but they consented. When each took the witness stand, Judge Garland allowed them to say my client had a reputation for telling the truth without any further elaboration. The client was granted a divorce!

I became a Sessions Judge in 1980. My office at the Ashe Street Courthouse overlooked the front steps of the building and was the first office inside the front door. Across the hall to the left was the County Clerk’s Office while the entrance to Law Court was to the right. A staircase at the end of the building led to the second floor and Chancery Court.

Because I was the first office inside the door, people entering the building would frequently stop and ask me for directions. At first I thought the interruptions to answer questions like “where are the rest rooms?” were annoying.  I soon realized, however, it was a great opportunity to meet and talk to people in advance of an upcoming election campaign.

The County Clerk’s office issued marriage licenses in addition to being the place where you obtained your automobile license tags. The duties of my judge’s office included the right to perform marriages. Couples obtaining their licenses often asked the clerk who could perform a marriage ceremony. They often pointed to my office and said,  “The Sessions Court Judge would be glad to marry you.”

                                                                             THE RUNAWAY BRIDE

   One of my first marriages was unnerving but taught me a valuable lesson on how helpful the court’s deputy clerks could be.  A young couple showed up, he in uniform, with a very nicely dressed young bride. They said they needed to get married because he was being shipped to an Army base in California. Unless they were married, the military would not pay for the couple’s moving and other transportation expenses.  

I performed the marriage ceremony, wished the couple well, and closed my office door. Within a half hour, the couple was back banging on my door. “I want a divorce,” the young bride in tears said. Asking a couple of questions, I learned that she had never before left home and now was panicked about leaving her Washington County kinfolk and moving clear across the country with a man she had never lived with.

Briefly explaining I had already turned the marriage license into the County Clerk’s Office, I remembered that Kathryn Rowe, a Deputy Law Clerk, had witnessed the ceremony. Kathryn was the wife of W. C. Rowe for whom the park containing the Chuckey Depot in Jonesborough is located.

I told her what had just occurred. Her reply was, “I will take care of it.” I re-introduced the couple to the clerk and left for the Sessions Courtroom. While I was in court, Mrs. Rowe talked to the couple who left the courthouse smiling and hand-in-hand.  

She later said to me that while telling them about the joys of being married she gave them a suggestion. “Get a hotel room today and stay the weekend,” Kathryn said. “You are married.  When the weekend ends if you decide you can live without each other, come back and I’ll tell you how to get a divorce in Law Court.”

The couple never returned to the Ashe Street Courthouse.

                                                                      THE RAPPER

The Sessions Courtroom lacked a judge’s entrance. You had to walk though the audience to take the bench. In the process you walked by the prisoners who were seated in benches on the first couple of rows. 

Heading for the bench one afternoon, one of the bailiff’s stopped me and said, “Make sure you talk to the rapper. He said he needs to talk to you.” Taking the bench, I asked the deputy clerk, “What’s a rapper?” She grinned and said, “It’s about music.”

The “rapper” I discovered was charged with criminal trespassing at a downtown Johnson City business. When I arraigned him, he said, “Judge, I’m a singer-songwriter.  If you let me out of jail, I’m going to Nashville. “

In response, I said “What have you written?  He replied, “I’ll show you and began making chugging sounds as he started dancing around in front of the bench. Then came words, the text of which I don’t remember.”  

In response, the audience clapped.  

“OK, I said.  I’m fining you $10 band costs. I’ll tell the sheriff to release you today. However, if you are back in this court within six months, I sentence you to 90 days in jail.” I never saw the defendant again. I hope he had a successful trip to Nashville. 

                                                                 HILL STREET BLUES

From 1981 until 1987, a popular television program was titled “Hill Street Blues.”  The show chronicled the lives of a police station located in an unnamed large city. “The “Blues” were the color of the officer’s uniform and the station was located on “Hill Street.” The opening scene of the show featured a squad car with siren and flashing lights leaving the station.

One afternoon I told a Deputy Sheriff I did not think his office was properly making a shift change. “What’s wrong,” he said. I told him I had been watching “Hill Street Blues” and they left the station with the siren blasting and lights flashing. He said, “Judge, I’ll do that.” Thereafter, in late afternoon when I saw this deputy, he would tell me, “I’m going to leave the courthouse, watch me.”

He would then get behind the wheel of his squad car and take off in a perfect duplication of the opening scene of “Hill Street Blues.”

                                                                               A TRAGEDY

I will close this article with a brief reference to a tragedy at the courthouse in which I was involved.  On Thursday, August 20, 1986 Margaret Jeffers, 54, was shot twice and killed as she sat upstairs in Chancery Court waiting to start a divorce hearing. Her brother-in-law James Howard Jeffers fired the fatal shots with a .38-caliber pistol.

The Associated Press story read in part: “Jeffers, 55, was charged with first-degree murder and taken to the county jail in Jonesborough, the county seat…he was arraigned later Thursday before General Sessions Judge John Kiener, who ordered him held without bond.”

The shooting prompted the increased security present at courthouses today across Tennessee.  Part of the television coverage of the tragedy was made into an instructional video by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that warns officers and court personnel of certain safety measures that need to be observed in all court proceedings.