Fire in Bradley County Courthouse Leads Civil Circuit Court Judges to Resume Court in Temporary Locations

February 14, 2018

An electrical fire that broke out in September at the Bradley County Courthouse has forced the county offices to conduct business in temporary locations. The Cleveland Fire Department received the emergency call on Saturday morning, September 30th at 9 a.m., when citizens reported seeing smoke exuding from the courthouse. Thankfully, there was no one inside the courthouse at the time of the fire.

A breaker panel had caught fire within the mechanical room. While the fire was primarily contained to that room, most of the damage to the courthouse was caused by heavy smoke and water from the firefighters’ efforts to extinguish the blaze. There was no structural damage done to the 50-year old building.

Judge Mike Sharp and Judge Larry Puckett are the two presiding judges for the circuit court that serves Bradley, McMinn, Monroe, and Polk counties. Both judges had offices and courtrooms within the Bradley County Courthouse. The fire forced the civil branch of the circuit court to find a temporary home for court proceedings.

“Gayla Miller, our circuit court clerk, was able to secure places for the civil side to continue holding court without actually having to miss a single date,” Judge Sharp said. “Judge Puckett began hearing cases in a large conference room at the Bradley County Justice Center, and I began hearing cases in a large conference room in the Misdemeanor/Probation Building located at the Bradley County Justice Center.”

Judge Puckett noted, “Improvisation is the word that most accurately describes our mode of post fire operation, but we have not failed to hold court as scheduled to this point, except for jury trials, which cannot be held until we return to our former facilities. I suggest county and court officials make a plan of where courts can be relocated and develop a protocol if every office is uprooted, before it happens. If the county could have secured a vacant bank or school building for all dislocated offices to move to, this would have helped greatly.”

Judge Sharp said the biggest challenge they’ve faced is making sure all of the litigants, especially pro se litigants, know where to go and when. While security has been well-maintained inside the temporary courtrooms, the ability to monitor by metal detector and other means has been a little problematic. Nevertheless, “the overall court procedure, especially once we have gotten used to the change, has flowed, in my opinion, relatively smoothly,” Judge Sharp said.  

At one point, Judge Sharp’s assistant had her temporary office over at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Department — a completely separate building from Judge Sharp. “My judicial assistant would tell you, it was almost comical the many times when she would leave her office on one side of the justice complex to drive over to the other side of the complex to my office to deliver orders and such, while at the same time I had left my office and was driving around the complex to her office to deliver dictation, orders and such, only to find neither of us in our offices. Then we were both calling each other on our cell phones saying ‘Where are you at?’ It would remind one of a Laurel & Hardy or Three Stooges scenario! So, a sense of humor greatly helped during this time.”

Judge Sharp and his assistant are both now located in the Cleveland City Municipal Building (thankfully) with offices across the hall from each other. Both the mayor and the chief of police graciously agreed to allow the judges to utilize the city courtroom any time they needed it. Judge Sharp said, “From January 1, 2018 until now, myself, Chancellor Bryant, and Judge Puckett are all three sharing the Cleveland City Courtroom. The City Courtroom located inside the Cleveland Police Service Center is, while smaller than most courtrooms, an excellent facility. The building is extremely convenient for the lawyers and their clients, and is also very clean and well kept. The overall facility itself is excellent for court purposes and dealing with the public.”

Judge Puckett said, “I heard from a lawyer that because of the more difficult logistics, mediation is booming and everyone is trying diligently to spare themselves and their clients the new extra hassle of trying the cases in improvised facilities. That is a good thing.” 

The courthouse is expected to be repaired sometime between mid-April and mid-June of 2018. Judge Sharp expressed that while the courthouse fire has been problematic, he sees it as a blessing in the end. The Bradley County Courthouse will have upgraded lighting, technology, and energy upon opening later this year.

“All of this relocation has been difficult, as well as confusing at times. However, each of our elected officials, our circuit court clerk, county mayor, county sheriff, the city mayor, the city chief of police, and each of their staff members, as well as numerous other individuals in county and city government, have all gone out of their way to make every effort to assure that the court process in Bradley County has continued to run as smoothly as possible, under the circumstances,” Judge Sharp said. “It has been refreshing to watch our elected officials work together, both with the judges, the lawyers, and for the benefit of the citizens.”

Judge Puckett added, “I also want to commend the Administrative Office of the Courts for its support during this time, which I find to have been splendid in their action and advice that we have received. Special thanks go to support from our computer and telephone tech Barrett Hobbs and his supervisor. They are the best and got us back on line within a day or two of the fire.” 

Photo from the Bradley County Sheriff's Office