A mostly forgotten story of embattled judges, sheriffs, and the county commissioners who went to jail for the cause.
Among many other improvements to roads and other infrastructure, the Grand Jury of Walker County recommends a new court house. Judge Moses Wright presiding.
On recommendation from the county grand jury meeting, the Walker County Board of Commissioners decides to erect the new courthouse. Voters of Walker County later approve the bond to fund it.
Beginning in 1883 the county was run by a five-member commission serving two-year terms. In 1916 the terms were expanded to four-years. In 1940 the form of government changed to sole commissioner.
Formally known as the The Roads and Revenue Commission, they sought to build a new courthouse at Lafayette, and levy a tax to pay for it.
1915-1916 term: J.C. Young, John .M. Ransom, J. D. McConnell, A. J. Wheeler and my great grandfather, S.P. Hall.
Why was the new courthouse opposed? One newspaper article explained that the majority of opposition was from the north end of the county – and desired that the county seat would be moved to Chickamauga, or at least closer to Rossville & Chattanooga.
Don C. Harris, representative from Chickamauga, GA, and others who opposed the new courthouse brought a petition against the commissioners and multiple businesses involved with the new courthouse bid.
Judge Moses Wright of the Rome Circuit, had jurisdiction over Walker County, but the opposition knew they’d be unlikely to find support of an injunction with Wright. But, they had a plan; hiring an attorney in Chattanooga on contingency fee – Robert Wright, who was Judge Wright’s brother, thus creating what they hoped would be reason to disqualify Judge Wright.
The opposition instead took their petition to Judge A. W. Fite of the adjoining Cherokee Circuit; asking him to take on the case. Judge Fite decided that Wright was disqualified due to the Judge's brother ‘being a party to the case’ and assumed jurisdiction of the petition, granting a temporary restraining order against the commissioners.
Less than a year earlier, Judge A. W. Fite had imprisoned three Murray County commissioners and their attorney for nearly a month in the Murray County jail after issuing an order to stop the commissioners from erecting the new courthouse at Chatsworth. The State Supreme Court overturned Fite’s ruling twice – and the imprisoned parties were released.
"Of course, I am somewhat surprised at the decision of the Supreme Court, but it is not the first time that I have been reversed when I was right.”
SOURCE: Murray County Museum
"Beware of entrance to a quarrel; but, being in,
So bear it that the opposer may beware of thee."
Board of Commissioners issues request for bids on new courthouse.
In the same newspaper , following that request, A notice from Judge Fite stating he has taken jurisdiction in the case from Judge Moses Wright of Rome, Ga. and demands no actions be taken towards the building of the courthouse.
Judge Fite issues a contempt of court rule against The County Board of Commissioners of Roads and Revenues and E. P. Hall, Jr. , publisher of the Walker County Messenger(and a distant cousin of mine). The actions in question were the publishing of request for bids on the ‘work contemplated by the board’.
Judge Wright intervenes and reasserts his rightful jurisdiction immediately with a blanket injunction against plaintiffs who oppose the courthouse. He also prohibits any Georgia county sheriffs or deputies from acting on orders of Judge Fite.
Commissioners award the construction contract to Little-Cleckler Construction Co. of Anniston AL – work to begin ‘at once’.
A large number of citizens gathered for the opening of the bid award. Also in attendance was Sheriff Ward of Catoosa County, having received an order from Judge Fite to arrest O. M. Clemmons, clerk of the Superior court.
The Sheriff was presented with Judge Wright’s injunction orders. Ward asked Clemmons if he would voluntarily go with him to Ringgold. Clemmons declined. Sheriff Ward and other opposition contingents left town.
A series of incidents mark the clash between the courts, as to jurisdiction over Walker County’s new courthouse.
Commissioner J. D. McConnell was returning to Georgia after doing business in Chattanooga. He and 3 other associates arrived in Rossville around 3:30pm. A rope had been stretched across the ‘government road’. One member of a large crowd approached their car with a shotgun.
Sheriff Ward and two deputies from Catoosa County, acting on orders from Judge Fite, had come to arrest those in contempt. McConnell refused to go voluntarily. Sheriff Ward said ‘well, we will have a showdown here and now’. He was dragged from the car and taken to Ringgold. J. S. Alsobrook and S. T. Carson assisted the Sheriff in the apprehension.
Around midnight – Sheriff Ward and deputies went to the home of S. P. Hall and John M. Ransom, two other commissioners – and by physical force arrested them. They were carried to Ringgold by car.
As you’ll recall – Judge Fite’s orders had been overruled by Judge Wright. Responding to the those actions, the next morning Sheriff R. S. Garmany (my 2nd great-uncle), went to Chickamauga and arrested S. T. Carson, and from there went to Rossville after J. S. Alsobrook. But upon arriving at Rossville. it was discovered that Alsobrook had traveled to the Tennessee side, where he could not arrest him.
A large crowd gathers in Ringgold, GA where Judge Fite tries the county commissioners McConnell, Hall, and Ransom with contempt of court. Judge Fite decides to let the commissioners give $1000 bonds each – and if they would revoke the courthouse contract, he would discharge them from the bonds. Fite stated if they didn’t make bond that day he would order them jailed in Catoosa County.
The commissioners refused to give bond.
Judge Fite shifted the responsibility to the Catoosa County Sheriff as he left the courtroom for a speaking engagement. The sheriff made no effort to take the men into custody and the commissioners returned to Lafayette.
Meanwhile – Judge Wright issued an order to Walker County Sheriff R. S. Garmany to provide ‘ample means for fully protecting members of the county board as well as the contractors working on the new courthouse.
Any one interfering with the court house construction work, Judge Wright announced, would be guilty of contempt of court, and punishment certainly would be imprisonment in the Walker county jail.
Georgia Supreme Court formally reverses Judge A. W. Fite restraining order on building the new court house.
The court held that Judge Fite had no jurisdiction over the matter, it having previously held that Judge Wright was not disqualified, and his order adjudging the Walker County commissioners in contempt was vacated and set aside.
The court held that S. T. Carson was in contempt of Judge Wright’s order in helping Sheriff Ward of Catoosa County to make the arrests, and that the sheriff of Catoosa County had no right to serve such a paper in Walker County in any event.
The Board of Roads and Revenue formally accepted the new court house, making full settlement to the contractors.
The building, which cost $80,000, is 'the most magnificent edifice in the county', and as a courthouse has no equal in this section of the state.
Judge Moses Wright formally addresses the crowds gathered to celebrate.
Judge A. W. Fite did not attend.