Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 13, 2023

Courthouse favorite Horne ready for retirement

Jan Horne at her desk at Hamilton County Sessions Court, where she retired as office administrator Jan. 10. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Jan Horne was in the middle of a difficult life transition in 2004 when Judge Robert Moon told her about a job opening at Hamilton County Sessions Court.

Moon was a personal friend of Horne’s and knew she’d need health insurance and other benefits after becoming divorced, so he implored her to apply.

As a self-employed court reporter, Horne liked working when she pleased – which was usually any time after the crack of noon, she jokes – but she knew Moon was right and did as he suggested.

Horne, 68, is neither shy about sharing this personal anecdote nor does she allow it to weigh down the moment.

“Listen, I wasn’t good at marriage,” she quips before leaning back and cracking open a cheerful laugh.

Horne is seated on a couch in Judge Christie Sell’s chambers, looking very much like the room actually belongs to her.

Horne has certainly been a fixture in the back offices of Sessions Court during the nearly 20 years she’s worked there, first as a judicial assistant and then as office administrator.

But as she talks, she’s looking ahead to her retirement Jan. 10, when she’ll leave the court with an opening that will be as difficult to fill as any bench a judge has vacated over the years, says the Hon. Alex McVeagh.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do without Jan. No matter what kind of day you’re having, she’ll leave you either shaking your head or clutching your stomach in laughter. I’m grateful to have worked alongside her.”

On paper, Horne’s job since her promotion 10 years ago has consisted of paying the court’s bills, presenting the annual budget to the county commission and making arrangements for the judges, whether she was renewing their bar memberships or shipping them off to a conference.

And, according to the current roster of judges, Horne has excelled at her work.

“Jan is an excellent multitasker who’s always performed with a smile and a funny comment,” says Sell. “She’s made a stressful job a little lighter with her humor and compassion.”

Horne, however, describes her work differently than her official job description. “I just take care of my judges,” she says, referring to McVeagh, Sell and the Honorables Larry Able, Gary Starnes and Lila Statom. “They’re all my babies.”

While hearing a servant of the court refer to a group of judges as her children can be startling, Horne’s words contain only affection.

“We have five judges, which means there are five completely different personalities back here,” Horne says. “And I get along with every single one of them.”

Sell notes that Horne is one of four sisters – including one twin – and suggests their sibling dynamics might have equipped her to navigate the various lineups of judges over the years. (Moon and judges Mike Carter, Ron Derby, Richard Holcomb and Clarence Shattuck occupied the benches of Sessions Court when Horne arrived.)

“Being a twin and having three sisters must have been what prepared her to so diplomatically and humorously deal with us all.”

There have been many days when Horne’s cheerful disposition helped her to cope with what she calls the exasperating parts of her job with grace. For example, she’d often speak with defendants who’d called the court to offer a flimsy excuse for skipping a proceeding, whether it was a flat tire or a debilitating illness.

Horne says she knew better than to believe them. But she also remembered that many of these defendants had a family that was suffering through the ordeal as well – and those people had her heart.

“We’d talk all day long with the families of the people who were charged here. Parents and siblings would call here crying because their family members were deep in the legal system because of drugs. That touched me because addiction touched my life. I lost a grandson in 2012.”

Horne says she’d give these callers an earful of advice she knew wasn’t easy to hear.

“I’d say, ‘Don’t bond your son out of jail. Make him face the consequences of what he’s done and then maybe he’ll get the help he needs.’”

Although Horne could dispense medicine that wasn’t easy to swallow, her heart was soft toward everyone who became wrapped up in the legal system, whether through their own misdeeds or the actions of a loved one.

At times, this worked in the court’s favor, as when McVeagh would call on Horne to console a distressed defendant in drug recovery court. At other times, it worked against her, such as when she’d purchase groceries for a defendant who’d given her a “sob story,” only to learn they had money for drugs.

“I’ve probably gotten a little too close to some people, but I became tougher and tougher over the years,” Horne says.

While listening to Horne talk, it’s hard to imagine she was ever anything but street-wise. But that was the case when she first began working as a court reporter.

“I was very sheltered while I was married to my first husband,” she says. “He wouldn’t let me work and was very controlling. So when I became a court reporter, I learned a lot of things I’d never known about.”

Horne decided to become a court reporter as she was divorcing the man who tried to keep her under lock and key.

“Listen, I told you I wasn’t good at marriage,” she says again with another laugh.

Horne’s twin sister had become a court reporter, and Horne believed if her sibling had been able to do it, then she could, too. So, she earned her credentials at the now shuttered Edmondson Junior College in Chattanooga and then went to work for Hall & Associates, a court reporting firm, in 1988.

Horne eventually formed her own firm with another local court reporter. She also took a break from court reporting in the 1990s to work as attorney Harry Berke’s legal secretary. But she was back at Hall & Associates when Moon told her about the opening at Sessions Court.

As Horne shifts from looking back to looking ahead, she says she doesn’t have specific plans for her retirement other than to sleep in, spend time with family and take care of her 10-year-old dog, Ruffles.

“I don’t want to be a really old lady when I finally retire and not be able to enjoy the time I have left,” she explains. “So, I’m leaving while I still have some good years ahead of me.”

Horne also wants to leave while Ruffles is healthy. Her tiny mix of Shih Tzu and Bichon Frise is nearly as much of a fixture at Sessions Court as she is. Not only did Horne once bring Ruffles to work every day, but when Ruffles ran away from their Fort Wood apartment on two occasions, some of the judges helped Horne search for her.

“Judge McVeagh and Judge [Russell] Bean drove everywhere with me looking for her,” she recalls.

To Horne’s tremendous relief, someone found Ruffles, and the pup made her way home after each dayslong ordeal. Now the two are once again inseparable.

“We’re going to hike the Appalachian Trail and climb the Himalayas,” she says with a wink.

The only thing Horne says she’s certain she’ll do after retiring is miss the people with whom she’s worked. It’s not a cliche to say they’re family, she says, it’s the truth.

“I won’t miss the office politics. And I won’t miss answering the phone and listening to lies. But I’ll miss my funny judges.”

And the judges will pine for Horne, they say.

“I’m going to miss her, and her precious dog, dearly,” says Sell.

As Horne steps into the corridor outside Sell’s chambers, Statom and Starnes are passing by and stop to hug her and express how Sessions Court won’t be the same without her.

Starnes tells her he’s going to miss the desserts she makes as Christmas presents and Statom insists Horne is going to work as her personal assistant.

“As long as it’s not before noon,” Horne says.