Judicial Ethics Panel in Spotlight

Tennessee lawmakers are meeting next week to discuss reforming the state panel that polices judges, which is stacked with lawyers and judges and has been criticized as secretive and overly lenient.

“I think there’s something that just doesn’t sound right about the judiciary appointing a judiciary to oversee the judiciary,” Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said. Beavers, who used to be a court reporter, chairs the Judiciary Committee and the ad-hoc committee looking into the Court of the Judiciary.

For the past three years Beavers has been trying to increase outside oversight of the Court. She says she’d like to see “more everyday folks” appointed to the panel that investigates charges of judicial misbehavior.

The Court is composed of 10 judges appointed by the Supreme Court, three attorneys named by the Tennessee Bar Association and one member each chosen by the governor and the House and Senate speakers.

The Court of the Judiciary’s newly elected presiding judge says he’s open to anything the Legislature wants to do. But members outside the legal system will require training on the intricacies of the state’s ethics laws, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said.

“It’s kind of hard for laypersons to understand the code of judicial conduct,” said Craft.

In 2009, reports surfaced that only a sliver of complaints to the Court alleging judicial misconduct resulted in disciplinary action, with most of the punishment records shielded from public inspection.

Officials within the Court of the Judiciary stress the importance of keeping unfounded allegations secret to protect judges’ credibility and contended that most of the allegations they receive have nothing to do with ethics issues, anyway.

“I think people wonder why we have 290 complaints and 90 percent of them are dismissed. They wonder what’s going on,” Craft said. “We’re an organization that handles ethical complaints against judges. We don’t handle legal complaints. Those are called appeals.”

Last fall, Beavers headed a study committee examining the practices of the Court. Months later, Beavers suggested the Legislature shrink the Court of the Judiciary to 12 appointees, all of whom would be chosen by the House and Senate speakers. On the last day of the legislative session the bill was postponed until 2012.

The former head of the Court of the Judiciary says the face-off is more of a power struggle between the judicial and legislative branches of government, according to the City Paper.

“It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain control over a separate branch of government,” said Steve Daniel, a retired judge who presided over the Court of the Judiciary from 1999 to 2004 and served as chief disciplinary counsel from 2007-10. “It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain power over who sits on the court. They want to try to influence the judiciary, to intimidate judges, to make them more palatable to their particular agenda.”

Beavers disagrees.

“I just resent the fact that some people say it’s a power struggle, because it’s not that at all,” she said. “It’s part of our job.”

Craft, who was elected to lead the Court of the Judiciary less than a month ago, says he doesn’t see the hearings as a political power grab or a legislative attempt to menace the judiciary, either.

“We’re all supposed to balance each other out and work together,” Craft said. “We’re accountable to them just as the laws they pass are accountable to the Constitution.”

The committee will meet in Legislative Plaza on Tuesday, Sept. 20, and carry over into Wednesday, Sept. 21, if needed.

The Administrative Office of the Courts expects to release a report on the history of the Court of the Judiciary before next week’s meeting, a courts spokeswoman said.

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  • Jean Hinson

    Someone needs to investigate the divorce cases in Murfreesboro. My case is just one of many that was unethical. I was married for over 40years and I am disabled with Breast Cancer at 65yrs old. My spouse and I owned Coconut Bay Restaurant and numerous rental properties which was purchased during our years of marriage. My husband quick deeded all rental properties to daughter right before filing for divorice. The judge Rogers stated that the properties were not marital asscess. Judge Rogers also decided to take my medical insurance away from me which I needed terribly. If that wasn’t bad enough he had ordered me to move out of my home which made me move in with my sister that is also disabled. My sister would not let me stay with her very long. I was recently told to move out. I’m living in a 50 to 60 yr old home awarded to me by the Judge with mold on ceiling and the floors have fallen to ground with not much suport the house has mice and bugs and has been totally trashed also in a secluded area. My husband that is living with daughter in a $500,000 home being paid for by the restaurant that I was told that I didn’t own anymore. I am trying to live on $400 dollars a month social security and now have a $100,000 morgage. Judge Rogers is also decided that my exhusband pay alimony which hasn’t been paid in full for months. I wanted the check to be sent to me but the Judge ordered the money to be sent to attorney Scarlett which is my exhusbands attorney. The Judge also ordered Scarlett to keep 25% of my alimony for taxes decided by Judge. I am desperate and don’t know which direction to go. This Judge and attorney has basically put me in poverty while my husband has been awarded all assets. Something is wrong with this picture not only on my case but others with proof of unethical practices.

  • Jean Hinson

    Also I was told by my attorney if I filed appeal that it would go through the same Judge which didn’t like me.