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NC5 Investigates: General Sessions Court

Judge Works Second Job While Courtroom Waits

Judge Gale Robinson, on the bench Judge Gale Robinson, on the bench
Judge Robinson, working second job as a funeral director Judge Robinson, working second job as a funeral director
Mike Baker, defendant in a civil case Mike Baker, defendant in a civil case
Chief investigative reporter Phil Williams confronts Robinson Chief investigative reporter Phil Williams confronts Robinson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you are called into court for any reason, you could end up in jail if you leave the judge waiting.

But the same rules don't apply to the judges.

In fact, we discovered in Nashville's courts that some judges leave people waiting and waiting for justice.

So where are the judges? 

That was the question behind a NewsChannel 5 investigation, more than three months in the making. To find out, our NewsChannel 5 Investigates team took to the air, set up surveillance on the ground, even took hidden cameras inside the courthouse.

One of those judges, Gale Robinson, is the presiding judge of Davidson County's General Sessions Courts.  Come to Robinson's courtroom late, and the judge just may lay down the law.

"The good citizens of Davidson County don't need to be sitting around here all day long," Robinson lectured attorneys in his courtroom.

Still, that's exactly what we found, day after day. And our investigation discovered it's sometimes the judges themselves who are late -- or don't even show up -- keeping victims, police and others waiting for justice.

But just try to question Robinson about why he was a no-show.

"Judge, we'd like to get your side," NewsChannel 5's chief investigative reporter Phil Williams called out as Robinson walked away. "Haven't you put people in jail for not showing up in court?"

The judge walked into an office and slammed the door.

Take, for example, Aug. 27th. That's the day that Mike Baker had to come to court on a rent dispute with his landlord.

"I should have been back in front of the judge by 10 o'clock and here it is after 12," Baker told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

For the hard-working mechanic and car dealer, every hour he waited was money out of his pocket.

"It cost me $12 to park. I had three cars that I was supposed to work on that morning and one that I was supposed to deliver to a customer that was buying.  That customer bought one somewhere else. I lost that money."

The judge who was supposed to hear Baker's case was Judge Robinson himself. But on this day, the judge wasn't on the bench. In fact, Robinson was nowhere near the courthouse.

Instead, we tracked him across town to a Belle Meade church, where we spotted the judge working a second job as a funeral director.

That's right -- collecting his judge's salary of almost $150,000 a year -- while making even more money for his family-owned business.

"That really irritates me," Baker said later, "to think that I had to spend all day sitting there, when I could be doing this to make money I need to feed my family."

Instead, folks waited for hours for another judge to finish her job to come do Robinson's job --while he took care of business at his second job.

"Our judges should be on the bench," Baker said. "Do we not pay them enough to be there?"

That's what led us to Robinson's funeral home in search of him and an answer to the question: "Haven't you put people in jail for not showing up in court?"

The rules governing the conduct of Tennessee's judges say they cannot engage in activities that interfere with the proper performance of their judicial duties. 

But, in Davidson County, our investigation discovered a few judges have long traditions of covering for colleagues -- while they're off doing other things.

Take, for example, the so-called one-stop docket. It's a time for folks accused of minor misdemeanors to be booked, have their cases heard and get back to their jobs.

But our hidden cameras were there on Sept. 8th, as Robinson's courtroom turned into a waiting room.

While people waited to be taken to another judge and a man phoned his boss to beg for more time to report to a new job, Robinson was taking the wheel of a hearse -- one of the duties of his second job.

Still, when he finally emerged from his funeral home office, Robinson was unapologetic.

"I love both of my jobs," Robinson told Williams.

While he insisted his job as judge comes first, there were even more days that we spotted him working for himself -- when his schedule showed he was supposed to be working for taxpayers.

"My first priority has always and will continue to be always my judicial duties," Robinson said, walking off.

"Is it fair to keep people waiting while you work a second job?" Williams asked.

"I've got to go now," the judge answered.

We tried to ask whether Robinson thinks our video shows his priority is sometimes something other than the job to which people elected him.

"I've responded to your questions, Phil, and I appreciate you," Robinson said.

"Haven't you put people in jail for now showing up in court?" Williams asked again.

Not answering, the judge went back to his other job.

In general, Robinson gets high marks from those who appear before him. 

But they tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that his second job -- which he openly talks about in court -- is the one problem they sometimes see.

There is a court that polices the ethics of Tennessee's judges. But a lot of their work is done in secret. So we don't know if they've ever reprimanded any Nashville judge for such conduct.

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