The chairwoman of a key Senate committee plans to go after the Court of the Judiciary again next year, this time with a renewed focus on making the results of complaints against judges public and tightening the rules for judicial recusals.
The challenge is whether the Legislature has enough political will to put in motion Sen. Mae Beavers’ attempts to revamp the court, which investigates allegations of ethical misconduct by judges. Lawmakers put the issue on hold on the last day of this year’s legislative session.
“It’s just a matter of convincing everybody else in the Legislature that we need some changes. I wish everybody could have heard what we heard today and yesterday,” Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said after listening to nine hours of testimony about the Court of the Judiciary in two days. Beavers chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She and a small band of mostly Republican lawmakers convened an ad hoc committee examining the Court this week to discuss criticism that the Court lacks transparency and dismisses a large share of complaints. The committee plans to assemble a legislative proposal for next session.
The details are still in the works, but the committee expressed four areas it would like to revamp:
• Strengthening laws that require judges to acknowledge potential conflicts of interest, an issue that is new to Beavers’ agenda.
• Requiring disciplinary action against judges to be made public, which is a shift from Beavers’ position earlier this year.
• Re-organizing the Court’s makeup by requiring that more citizens not in the legal profession are on the panel and stripping the Supreme Court of its power to appoint members, which was the crux of Beavers’ proposal last year.
• Renaming the panel to clarify that the body is not an actual court, a topic Beavers hadn’t addressed before.
While court officials say they favor the name change and are OK with letting someone else select members of the Court, they take issue with attempts to dwarf judges’ presence on the panel by adding a lot more laypeople.
“We’re not asking for anything other than any other profession is,” said Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey Bivins, chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee, which is monitoring the Court of the Judiciary legislation. Most professional boards in Tennessee hold a majority of members from that line of work, he said, and there’s a reason for that.
“If it’s a person who’s not learned in the area of that procedure, they may well make decisions that could lead to due process violations or some type of violations to where the disciplinary action ultimately wouldn’t be upheld,” he said.
Critics of the Court say far too many complaints against judges are privately dismissed, and that reform is needed.
“The Court of the Judiciary is in the whitewash business,” John Jay Hooker, a longtime critic of the state’s systems for selecting and disciplining judges, told the committee. “They ought to get a pair of overalls and a brush. If I had a fence, I would let them whitewash it because they are expert whitewashers.”
Hooker said one of his own complaints was dismissed because judges were protecting another judge.
The committee heard emotional testimony from Danielle Malmquist of Memphis, who says the judge in her divorce case should have recused himself. The judge’s staff reportedly had police investigate her because of fears she had threatened to kill the judge. Malmquist says she never threatened the judge, and police dropped the case, WSMV Channel 4 reported.
“Judges judging judges is not working in our current system of judicial accountability as those judges have a vested interest,” Malmquist told the committee. “It’s unfathomable to believe that a judge, someone who was charged with great powers by the state, would violate the laws without accountability.”
In the last two decades, the Court has received almost 5,200 complaints. According to the court’s limited records, 170 cases ended in some sort of discipline or resulted in the judge stepping down from the bench. But the Court has kept such poor records that even its administrative office cannot say with certainty what happened to 2,000 of those complaints.
“There’s a biblical principle — it’s avoiding the appearance of evil — and I think that judges should do that when at all possible,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who sat on the committee and advocates overhauling the Court. “And that appearance of impropriety or that appearance of bias needs to be avoided when at all possible.”
Jerri Bryant, the moving vice president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and chancellor of the 10th Judicial District, says it’s important to consider that Tennessee courts handle 1 million cases annually. Less than 1 percent of those cases results in a complaint with enough merit to warrant an investigation, she said.
Although officials from both the legislative and judicial branches opened up the two-day hearing saying they weren’t looking to pick a fight with the other, the committee had a combative tone.
“It should not be,” said Court Presiding Judge Chris Craft. “There are three equal branches of government, and we should work with each other. … If we don’t get along, it does nothing but hurt the people in Tennessee, so we need to work together.”