Judge Tiffany Yarnell.jpg

Judge Yarnell is running for reelection to the bench this August. She was reelected to the bench in 2018 with 57% of the vote against two opponents.

A recent visit to a Taney County courtroom revealed a court session to be akin to a duck swimming: it may look calm on the surface, but there’s a lot happening you can’t see.

Branson Tri-Lakes News spent a morning in Judge Tiffany Yarnell’s courtroom to observe the way Taney County courts have been operating post-COVID-19. Her morning session dealt with more than 80 defendants through various kinds of cases, from arrangements to dispositions, with a number of different attorneys in what appeared to be an orderly, smooth process.

“There’s usually more,” Yarnell told Branson Tri-Lakes News after the session. “I looked at the docket before this morning and it was 80-something, but then you have to add arraignments of people who were picked up on warrants…I could be looking at an 80 person docket, but if they pick up 10 overnight, then it’s 90.”

Yarnell noted the day’s schedule was lower because the court had been held for a jury trial, which didn’t take place. The lack of the trial opened the day to deal with some of the backlog of cases.

“I can use days like this to focus on in-custody cases,” Yarnell said. “I need to keep things moving on those cases.”

To an observer, it looks like Yarnell’s docket was just procedural. However, Yarnell said there is so much going on for a judge in a courtroom like hers the public rarely gets to see or understand the depth.

“There are a lot of things happening in my mind I have to be processing while every case is moving,” Yarnell said. “I have bond hearings, where I have to know all the bond rules which were changed a few years ago (by the Missouri Supreme Court.) I have to bounce around the bond rules to know what factors I have to consider, what questions I have to ask people, to look at the calendar to see when preliminary hearings are scheduled, to see how long it’s taking public defenders to get involved in the cases. There is such a variety (of things considered in each case.)

“For example, I have to look to see if people have cases already pending with Judge Merrell. If they have other cases with Judge Merrell, I have to know what’s going on with it. I have guys with warrants on other things. So I don’t need to waste everyone’s time with a bond hearing when they’re being held on another warrant on other things.”

Yarnell said her afternoon schedule this day involved evidentiary hearings and preliminary hearings, where she needs to know how long the hearing will be based on the type of case so she can plan the case on her calendar.

“We had a couple cases this morning which were possession of controlled substances, basic felony possession cases,” Yarnell said. “I’m not going to ask if they need a special setting in those cases, because I know we don’t need a special setting. I know it’s a one-witness case. However, if it’s a sex case, or a more serious assault case, and it’s set for a preliminary hearing, I need to ask the question because there will be multiple witnesses. Attorneys won’t always prompt me to ask the question, so I know I have to ask it, and I’ve learned this from experience of trying those cases.”

She said while someone sitting in the courtroom may see her sitting on the bench looking at her computer, what they don’t realize is she has 10 different things open related to the case. 

While the judges can hear almost all cases, the public may not know the judges have specific case assignments. (The exception on cases is Presiding Judge Merrell cannot hear juvenile cases because he hires the attorney for the Juvenile Office, and because this person works for Judge Merrell he cannot hear their cases.)

Yarnell’s courtroom is where state criminal cases will normally originate. Any misdemeanor, any felony, any state traffic issue will go to her courtroom. (As of April 2022, 95% of the cases before Judge Yarnell were criminal cases.) In mid-April 2022, the total caseload for the circuit was nearly 7,100 pending cases, with 3,723 (52.4%) of the circuit’s cases in Judge Yarnell’s courtroom. 

Yarnell noted prior to a recent change bringing the cases for all municipalities except Branson under their circuit court, she was managing about 60% of the circuit’s cases. 

“I absorbed Hollister,” Yarnell said. “Judge Eighmy absorbed Rockaway Beach, Forsyth, and Merriam Woods.”

Unlike many attorneys who may specialize in one form of law, Yarnell noted she must be educated in all aspects of the criminal justice system.

“I’ve been educated and educated myself over the last five and half years on things I wasn’t familiar with,” Yarnell said. “But I looked at my overall numbers the other day and over 90% of my cases were criminal cases.”

Yarnell knew the division mostly worked on criminal cases when she was appointed to the bench.

“My entire career to that point had been in public service,” Yarnell said. “When I graduated law school in 2005, a week after graduation I was in the Greene County Prosecutor’s Office and I knew I wanted to be in court every day.”

She worked there for two and a half years until she came to the Taney County Prosecutor’s Office.

“I just knew I wanted to do public service law,” Yarnell said. “I always had an interest in criminal law, my undergraduate degree is in criminal justice.”

Yarnell said the pull to criminal justice when she went to school is a mix of her passion to see fairness and justice along with wanting to help people and love people.

“I genuinely love people and want to help the community,” Yarnell said. “Ever since I was a child I was interested in the justice side of things, and it grew as I went to college.”

She noted her internship experiences ran the gamut from working with a public defender’s office, to a local prosecutor’s office, to a federal prosecutor’s office, and working with the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Lab.

“I just went in wanting to learn,” Yarnell said.  

She said when the opening came up for the bench, she applied because she’d been in the prosecutor’s office and the judgeship would allow her to continue her passion for justice.

“I never believed I would get it,” Yarnell said. “But I thought when I’m back in the courtroom prosecuting cases, I can’t complain if I think [the judge] made the wrong decision if I didn’t apply.”

Yarnell said she understands the weight of responsibility upon her as a judge how the decisions she makes impacts more than just a defendant, and can ripple through the lives of the victims, their families, and even the defendant’s families.

“This is my passion. I wouldn’t have chosen this career without it being a passion because it’s hard,” Yarnell said. “You see so many things the average person doesn’t see. Combine it with the fact I care about people, and I hope I am making a difference, but I know every decision I make impacts not just the person in front of me but the people around them.

“It’s hard to separate it and go home sometimes. I have to remind myself to be in the moment and watch my daughter’s basketball game, or we go to the farm and I focus on what needs to be done there. Enjoying time together.”

At the end of the day, Yarnell credits her faith as being a strong bedrock for helping her do her job and live her life.

“I’m a Christian, and I’m not afraid to say it,” Yarnell said. “I’m a true conservative and Republican but I can’t comment on specific political issues because of the rules.”

Yarnell ended her conversation by revealing something she believed many of the public doesn’t know about her position; she is essentially on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

“I am it,” she said. “I am the criminal judge. I could be driving to a sporting event with kids some evening and get a call stating police are on site at a situation and are waiting on me to make a decision on a search warrant. So I have to pull over, get on my iPad, and look at the information and make a decision.”

She hopes people will begin to understand the courtroom’s procedures and process, and those who work in it, are dedicated to justice, and while things may look calm when you’re sitting and observing, you realize everyone’s working hard to be the best for the citizens they encounter in the courtroom.

 

(Editor's Note: In a comment about bond, changes referred to by Judge Yarnell were made by the Missouri Supreme Court, not the legislature. We regret the error.)

(1) comment

Bjoh119

If anything she isnt here to support and help the citizens of this county. Let me explain my daughters first ever court appearance for a traffic ticket. My daughter had college midterms the day court was scheduled. She called the court clerk and explained the situation they said she could come next day and told her it was ok since those were definitely a calid reason to move the date. I happened to go with her and was blown away by the actions of Judge Yarnell. First she has no care in the world about those who are scheduled as she didnt open the doors till 30 minutes after court was supposed to start. (I have heard this is a normal thing in Taney county courts) When my daughter final went in front of her 3 hours after she was scheduled, Judge Yarnell tore into her say what makes you think you can just pick and choose when you come to court, you dont have the right to decide that, when you are scheduled to be in my court you better be here. She said she would get back to her after lunch then made us sit all day then at the end of the day rescheduled for a different day and made the comment of if you try and change it again there will be consequences. This was a 19 year old freshman in college who was wanting to see about getting her first ever ticket deferred. She was an honor roll student and had never been to court but was treated horrible by the same Judge that was laughing and joking with people who were appearing on drug charges and adking them if they would follow the conditions of bond this time. Who does that?? She is a disgrace to the bench and doesnt deserve to be voted back in.

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