Tennessee judge turns parking lot into courtroom

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LENOIR CITY, Tenn. (WATE) — For those without broadband internet or access to technology, the option to work or go to court remotely doesn’t exist.

One East Tennessee judge is getting creative to better serve his district.

“Ever had court, weather permitting?” Ninth District Judge Mike Pemberton asked on a sunny Thursday.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there are limitations inside local courtrooms for safety, such social-distancing options are critical.

Pemberton isn’t holding court, per se, in the parking lot-turned-courtroom. Instead, he’s finishing agreed-to matters of the court that can’t be heard inside a courtroom at this time.

“People need their adoptions,” Pemberton said. “They need their divorces if they’ve reached an agreement. They need their workers’ compensation settlements, their minor settlements, things like that.”

When he takes the bench, it’s now a chair pulled outside from his office, set up in front of a folding table he carries with him in the bed of his truck. “Not much else than what you see,” said Pemberton, who has been practicing law in East Tennessee for more than 30 years and became a judge nearly six years ago.

“All four of my courthouses have greatly and understandably restricted access and it’s difficult for folks to get into the courtroom – courthouse, excuse me,” he said.

Signs hang in front of the table reminding anyone present to keep their distance. Hand sanitizer sits on the table, too. On the ground, there are two red handwritten signs with the symbols for “Delta” and “Pi.” In this “courtroom,” they signal where the defendant and plaintiff will stand.

Everything in the unconventional setup is legal and processed as it would in a typical day’s work for Pemberton.

“Both for the attorneys and the litigants,” Pemberton said. “If they have an issue that is agreed to, that they need to get in front of the court and get it resolved, get the document signed, get their settlement checks approved … get their settlements approved, receive their settlement checks, or get their whatever divorces done, adoptions done, they just need to call or email my office.”

Relief for families waiting on adoptions

Pemberton described adoptions in his court as some of the happiest proceedings.

On one sunny day in Lenoir City, the McConkey family, arriving in matching shirts, celebratory signs and smiles, was first on the docket to finalize the adoption of 16-year-old Tessa McConkey after waiting four years.

“Just shortly after, she started asking, ‘When can I start writing McConkey as my last name?’ That’s been four years ago,” Tessa’s adoptive father, Buddy McConkey, said.

Buddy and Barbara McConkey met Tessa nearly a decade ago. Her adoptive mother, Barbara McConkey, said she was instantly part of their family. She joined three brothers, all wearing shirts to the parking lot courtroom labeling them as such.

COVID-19 closures of their county courtroom nearly delayed this moment even more.

“It was going through my mind. Is it gonna happen? Are we gonna wait longer? But I’m glad it did go through by the grace of God,” Tessa said.

Said Pemberton after finalizing Tessa’s adoption: You talk to any judge and they’ll tell you adoptions are things, the types of cases that they enjoy the most. Because in our job, we see so many things that are unpleasant.”

Pemberton makes it clear that the outdoor courtroom isn’t a stunt. This is another option for those who need it.

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