Tennessee judges are ready to fight back against legislative efforts to revamp the Court of the Judiciary, evidenced this week when members of the Trial Judges’ Association voted to hire a lobbyist to represent them in the debate.
The trial judges voted to increase their dues with a one-time assessment of $200 each in order to help get their message out to legislators. The vote came during a meeting of the trial judges at the Tennessee Judicial Conference in Franklin.
The Court of the Judiciary — comprised of 16 members, including 10 judges, 3 attorneys and 3 laypeople — acts on complaints against judges such as charges of judicial misconduct and can impose punishment on those judges.
The Tennessee General Assembly has launched a review of the Court in an attempt to make changes, such as making disciplinary decisions public and focusing on rules for judges to recuse themselves from cases.
Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, heads an ad hoc panel looking at the Court of the Judiciary, highlighted by two days of hearings last month. The legislative committee wants to rename the Court to reflect its true nature and, significantly, change the makeup of the Court.
Judges are working on their own version of legislation, some of which reflects the same concerns of the legislative panel. But those who spoke at the trial judges’ meeting on Wednesday were passionate about what is happening on Capitol Hill.
Circuit Court Judge Randy Kennedy of Nashville said judges are being unfairly targeted.
“I never dreamed — maybe I’m naive — I never dreamed that in carrying out our duties and responsibilities impartially and fairly that we would become a target of a misinformed, malevolent, agenda-driven bunch of folks. But we are,” Kennedy said in the meeting.
“We are right in the crosshairs.”
There was debate about raising funds to hire someone to lobby for the judges. At first, the talk was of voluntarily contributing to funds for the purpose, but ultimately the group voted to make the one-time assessment on their dues. Advocates for the move made the case that the judges need a voice at the Capitol given what they’re up against with legislative efforts.
“The legislature is not the enemy,” Kennedy said. “The problem is we have been unable in the last few years to convince them we really do have the same direction. The road to serve the public should be a joint effort. Somehow, we need some help beyond our limited abilities as judges to help legislators understand we are not trying to do their job, and we don’t need them to do ours.”
Chancellor Daryl Fansler of Knox County presided over the meeting and made the case for some representation with the Legislature.
“We were elected to do a job. That’s to try lawsuits, dispose of lawsuits for the public out there that elected us and pays us,” Fansler said. “We don’t have time to educate people on the Hill. We don’t have time to lay out all these cases.
“We’ve got a crisis on our hands right now.”
The discussion focused mostly on the need for judges to talk to their respective legislators about activity in the Legislature that affects them. One concern is that judges are being targeted for reasons that judges say should simply be addressed by appealing the decisions.
There was acknowledgment of the perception and concern of the judiciary getting involved in politics, but the point was made that judges have been thrust into politics whether they like it or not.
Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, chairman of a committee monitoring the legislation, laid out an alternative proposal being put together for the Legislature’s consideration. Much of it focuses on the makeup of the Court. Bivins said there is agreement that the Court of the Judiciary needs a new name.
“It’s not really a court, and it is confusing,” he said. Bivins said it should be called “something along the lines of the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.”
The composition of the board, however, is getting substantial attention. Bivins expressed concerns that the Legislature is considering dramatically cutting the number of judges on a slimmed-down panel. Bivins said it is important to have more judges than laypeople, which he said would reflect the makeup of boards in other professions.
The judges would keep the current number of 16 members and would keep the number of judges at 10. However, instead of three appellate judges, the judges propose one be taken out and that a juvenile court judge be added, since juvenile courts have no direct representation currently.
Of the six non-judge positions, under one scenario, they would have each of the two speakers in the Legislature have three appointments, each with at least one of the three members being an attorney. Bivins noted, however, that the governor has said he would like to have some appointments, so the recommendation would probably end up with two each for the speaker of the House, speaker of the Senate and the governor, with one member each required to be an attorney.
Under the current statute, the Tennessee Bar Association has the authority to appoint three attorneys to the Court, one from each grand division of the state. The governor, speaker of the House and speaker of the Senate each appoint one layperson.
The plan also addresses the appointing authority. Currently, the Supreme Court appoints all the judges on the Court.
“The Supreme Court and others have all agreed that that probably is not the way to go forward,” Bivins said.
He said their proposal is to have various conferences of judges appoint the judges on the Court.
Beavers has said the Supreme Court should not have that authority.
Danny Van Horn, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he sees no need for dramatic changes.
“I think everybody wants to make sure we have a fair, open, transparent system of government in terms of how we review complaints against the judiciary,” Van Horn said. “I can’t speak for the Judicial Conference, but from the TBA’s perspective we recognize there can be improvements made to the process. But the process, as a whole, we think, works.
“So wholesale changes I don’t think are warranted, but some tweaks to help make it more transparent and understandable are probably appropriate.”
Van Horn said the TBA would be lobbying on the issue but separately from the judges.
“As lawyers, we value the work the judges do, but we stand for fair and efficient administration of justice,” he said.