Gardner to withdraw resolution about control of historic Sullivan Courthouse

J. H. Osborne • Jul 13, 2013 at 10:36 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Commissioner John Gardner said last week that he plans to withdraw his resolution that seeks to declare the Sullivan County Commission has authority over the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

When Gardner introduced the proposal last month, he said his primary purpose was to make clear the Commission has control over the comings and goings at the building, in light of an earlier decision by the Commission to shift the “day worker” program from the sheriff to a county building administrator.

And, Gardner said, the historic Sullivan County Courthouse isn’t really a courthouse anymore because no judicial proceedings take place there.

But in answer to questions, Gardner said the resolution could ultimately lead to removal of “no weapons” signs from the historic courthouse’s doors.

Last week, speaking to the Commission’s Budget Committee, Gardner said the issue has since been embellished past a point he is comfortable with and he plans to withdraw his sponsorship of the resolution when the full Commission convenes Monday.

However, the resolution’s co-sponsor, Commissioner Baxter Hood, is allowed a chance to keep the resolution moving forward under the rules that govern such things, Gardner said.

“My goal was originally to be a bridge builder,” Gardner said. “But this has gone in the opposite direction.”

Gardner said his correspondence with an attorney working for state lawmakers in Nashville also played a role in his decision to withdraw the resolution.

Upon request, Gardner provided a copy of that correspondence to the Times-News.

According to that correspondence, Gardner contacted Thomas E. Tigue, chief deputy legislative attorney of the Tennessee General Assembly twice last month “concerning the historic Sullivan County Courthouse and the issue of security for, and firearms on the grounds of, this building.”

Tigue agreed to provide his own opinion about questions raised by Gardner “although I am not sure I have all the facts that might be necessary to resolve the issue.”

Tigue told Gardner he might want to seek a formal Tennessee attorney general’s opinion.

A central question considered by Tigue: It “must be resolved ... whether the historic Sullivan County Courthouse is still a ‘courthouse’ within the meaning of that term in (two sections of state law), since it is stated that court is no longer held in that building.”

Tigue pointed out that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines courthouse to mean:

(a) a building in which courts of law are regularly held.

(b) the principal building in which county offices are housed.

“Obviously, this definition does not require court to be held in the building to be a courthouse if there are county offices in the building, which apparently there are,” Tigue wrote. “However, Black’s Law Dictionary defines courthouse as follows: ‘Courthouse is the building occupied for the public sessions of a court, with its various offices. The term may be used of a place temporarily occupied for the sessions of a court, though not the regular courthouse.’

“The legal definition requires that court be held in the building in order to be a courthouse so it is not clear whether the historic courthouse in question is or is not a courthouse under Tennessee law. However, both statutes cited above relative to the sheriff seem to contemplate that a ‘courthouse’ is a place in which court is held.”

A second question addressed by Tigue in response to Gardner’s request: “Does the sheriff have charge over the historic courthouse structure or does the county commission?”

Tigue said under state law the sheriff has charge of the courthouse, unless some other person is specially appointed by the county legislative body for that purpose.

“Once again, if the structure is no longer a ‘courthouse’ within that definition, that provision stating the sheriff has charge of the courthouse does not apply to the historic Sullivan County Courthouse,” Tigue wrote. “Even if it does, the county legislative body can clearly appoint someone else, including the commission, to take charge of it.”

Another question posed to Tigue by Gardner, according to the correspondence: “Can the sheriff post the historic courthouse as a gun prohibited area?”

Tigue responded that “clearly,” state law “prohibiting firearms ‘while inside any room in which judicial proceedings are in progress’ does not apply since judicial proceedings are no longer held in that building. That makes the historic courthouse like any other government building in Sullivan County.”

Tigue said a person with a handgun carry permit is allowed to carry a handgun in a government building unless the building is properly posted in accordance with state law.

“Since no person is specified by statute with respect to who may post a building on behalf of a governmental entity, in my opinion it would be the same person or group in Sullivan County who currently makes the decision whether or not a building is posted for firearm possession,” Tigue wrote. “If that person is currently the sheriff, the sheriff could post the historic courthouse. If some other person or group, such as the county commission, is currently charged with the decision whether governmental property in Sullivan County should or should not be posted, in my opinion, that same person or group would be the appropriate one to make the decision in the case of the historic courthouse.”

The Sullivan County Commission is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. Monday in the historic Sullivan County Courthouse.

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