‘Ever had court weather permitting?’: East Tennessee judge turns parking lot into courtroom

Coronavirus

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

A Ninth District judge, born and raised in Roane County, is getting creative to better serve his district.

Judge Mike Pemberton’s district is comprised of Loudon, Roane, Meigs, and Morgan Counties. He’s been practicing law in East Tennessee for more than 30 years, becoming a judge nearly six years ago.

He understands in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic when there are limitations inside local courtrooms for safety, this socially-distant option is critical.

“Ever had court weather permitting?” asked Judge Pemberton on a sunny Thursday in East Tennessee. He made two stops: one in the morning at his Roane County office, the second in the afternoon outside of his Loudon County offices.

The parking lot-turned-courtroom proceeds just like it would anywhere else, or in Judge Pemeberton’s chambers, the only difference — it’s sunny outside.

“I’m not trying cases in my parking lot, I’m simply doing agreed to matters. People need their adoptions. They need their divorces if they’ve reached an agreement. They need their workers’ compensation settlements, their minor settlements, things like that.”

Ninth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Mike Pemberton

When Judge Pemberton 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. It’s simple, he says, “not much else than what you see.”

“Well, all four of my court houses have greatly and understandably restricted access and it’s difficult for folks to get into the courtroom – court house, excuse me,” said Judge Pemberton.

Signs hang in front of the table reminding anyone present to keep their distance. Hand sanitizer sits on the table, too.

On the ground, two red handwritten signs with the symbols for “Delta” and “Pi”, in this courtroom, they signal where the defendant and plaintiff will stand.

Judge Pemberton isn’t holding court, per say, instead he’s finishing agreed-to matters of the court that can’t be heard inside a courtroom at this time.

“Both for the attorneys and the litigant’s. 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,” said Judge Pemberton.

Ninth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Mike Pemberton

The only thing unconventional about this courtroom setup: the view. Otherwise, everything is legal and processed as it would in a typical day’s work for Judge Pemberton.

Relief for families waiting on adoptions

Judge Pemberton described adoptions in his court as some of the happiest. On a sunny day in Lenoir City, the same was true.

The McConkey family was first on the docket to finalize the adoption of 16-year-old Tessa McConkey.

They arrived in matching shirts, celebratory signs, and smiles. It didn’t matter where it happened, it was happening.

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

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

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

“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.

Adoptions are always… you talk to about 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, adoptions are the most pleasant,” said Judge Pemberton, after finalizing Tessa’s adoption.

The second adoption of the day came for twins, Brody and Cody.

Their biological mother, Heather and adoptive father, Phillip, said they had been waiting to make it official since the boys were barely a year-old.

“He’s Dad,” said Heather, describing Phillip’s role for her sons.

When their attorney notified them of Judge Pemberton’s parking lot court, they were “relieved”, the waiting was over.

“Worries that it was just not gonna happen, or it’d get postponed. We’re just grateful that it was an option,” adoptive father Phillip Finchum said.

“It’s certainly an option, nobody has to do it, I do not require anybody to do it. It’s just an option for folks that need to get their matters addressed that don’t have the ability to do things via video conference to do so.”

Ninth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Mike Pemberton

Judge Pemberton makes it clear, this isn’t a stunt. This is another option for those who need it.

Both families that completed adoptions in the courtroom parking lot are invited back when the courthouse reopens to take photos inside with their families.

These socially-distant, in-person services are available by calling Judge Pemberton’s office at 865- 376-5776 or by emailing CHERYL.HUNTER@TNCOURTS.GOV. 

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