The Shelby County Environmental Court serves the people of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, by hearing a variety of cases that negatively impact the quality of life in our communities.
Cases come before the Court because of existing violations of either a local ordinance or state law. Code enforcement and law enforcement, with the assistance of the District Attorney General’s Office, cite property owners to court. The Court hears cases involving properties that violate health, fire, building, zoning, and animal codes. Often these properties rise to the level of public nuisance.
The Court aims to achieve compliance, and as a result create a safer, more livable environment for Memphis and Shelby County citizens.
HISTORY OF THE COURT
In 1983, the City of Memphis created the Shelby County Environmental Court, a new division of City Court to handle health, fire, building, and zoning code violations. By centralizing ordinance violation cases before one judge, the Environmental Court gained the ability to readily and specifically respond to our community’s environmental needs. Judge Larry E. Potter was not only instrumental in creating the Shelby County Environmental Court, he also was appointed as the first Judge and subsequently elected to hear environmental cases for the next 35 years.
When founded, the Environmental Court handled only one environmental docket per week.The remainder of the Court’s dockets were traffic cases brought by the Memphis Police Department. Over the next eight years, the number of environmental cases steadily increased to include animals, health department and, construction code violations.
In 1991, the Tennessee Legislature gave additional authority to the Shelby County Environmental Court to issue conjunctive orders in aid of its jurisdiction. The Court could now not only order compliance with the law, but also remedy the problem at hand and prevent future violations. However the Court’s jurisdiction was and contiues to be limited only to the levying of fines. In instances of non-compliance, the Court also has the authority to assess a 10-day jail sentence for contempt of court if defendants disobey the Court’s orders.
In 2000, the Environmental Court pioneered the use of community courts to address problem properties at close range. Community courts serve the neighborhoods of Frayser, Orange Mound, Whitehaven, and Hickory Hill; although in the past the Court has also heard cases in Cordova, Arlington, and Millington.
Since 2001, the Environmental Court has heard all cases brought under the Abatement of Nuisances Statute. Under this authority, the Court has ordered the closing of dozens of crack houses, strip clubs, apartment complexes, and other entities deemed to constitute a public nuisance. Under this statute, the Environmental Court has the same jurisdiction as circuit and chancery courts. Appeals to public nuisance decisions are heard by the Tennessee Court of Civil Appeals.
In 2007, the Environmental Court appointed its first referee to assist the Judge in hearing cases. Due to the expanding environmental dockets and increasing number of environmental and traffic cases, a second referee was appointed in 2012 to assist the Judge. There are currently two referees assisting the Judge in handling the increased number of environmental court cases. Appeals from cases heard by referees are heard by the Judge.
In 2010, the Environmental Court began hearing cases which violate the Neighborhood Preservation Act, which addresses substandard vacant buildings that have become public nuisances. The NPA was enacted in 2004 and allows cases to be initiated by interested parties to include governmental entities or private citizens. In 2018, the NPA was amended to bring an in rem suit against the property itself, rather than the owner of the property. If the owner or any interested party is unwilling or unable to bring the property into habitable condition, the Court may appoint a receiver to abate the nuisance conditions on the property. Appeals to NPA cases are heard by the Tennessee Court of Civil Appeals.
The Shelby County Environmental Court is the court of original jurisdiction for all violations of Shelby County Ordinances. As such, it also hears cases as needed via intergovernmental agreements brought by Shelby County municipalities Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Lakeland, and Millington.
Upon Judge Larry E. Potter’s retirement announcement in February of 2018, Patrick Dandridge was recommended and endorsed by Judge Potter and appointed by the Shelby County Commission as the second Judge of the Shelby County Environmental Court. In August of 2018, Judge Dandridge was elected and continues to serve as the second Environmental Court Judge for Shelby County.
The Shelby County Environmental Court has received many awards and accolades for being one of the first Environmental Courts in the nation and for setting the standard on efficiency and efficacy in addressing environmental cases. Today the Court hears approximately 1200 environmental court cases and 4000 traffic cases per month.
Throughout its history, the Court has actively sought partnerships to assist in its vision of cooperative problem solving. After consulting with the University of Memphis Department of Psychology, the Court helped create the E-Team. Inspectors from different agencies were cross trained and dispatched to the community to bring properties into Court with conditions present that violated multiple sections of the law.
The Court has historically sought input from neighborhood associations, CDCs, and other citizens and groups motivated to assist in the Court’s vision of a cleaner and safer Memphis. This included the Citizen’s Environmental Review Panel, which identified and served problem properties to Court.
The Neighborhood Preservation Clinic at the University of Memphis Law School is another innovative program created in partnership with the Court. With the assistance of law students with the oversight of law professors, the City of Memphis has brought lawsuits against hundreds of properties in a neglected condition. Future attorneys who were trained in the clinic are now a common sight in court, utilizing their training in Division 14 to represent clients in a legal speciality not commonly understood among the bar.
The Shelby County Environmental Court was the second court of its kind in the nation, and has been instrumental in founding many similar courts. There are over 25 Environmental Courts in the United States, many of them following the model set by Shelby County Environmental Court. In Tennessee alone there are courts in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson. The Environmental Court has been nationally recognized by Keep America Beautiful, the Center for Court Innovation, and the Tennessee Municipal League, among other organizations.