After years of discussion and several months of focused haggling over details, some Tennessee lawmakers say they’re optimistic a deal is within reach to overhaul the panel charged with punishing unethical judges.
But it’s unclear if Sen. Mae Beavers — who has led the charge to bring more accountability to the Court of the Judiciary and rein in wayward judges — is on board.
“Nobody, I think, is just elated with the version,” said Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, who is sponsoring the reform in the House of Representatives. “I don’t think everybody got everything that they wanted on either side of the issue, but I think it’s a reasonable compromise.”
Beavers, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to comment about the compromise Tuesday.
The new language of HB2935 would require that 10 of 16 members of the board be sitting or retired judges. Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican, has pushed for more laypeople. The new plan would also require the board report statistics about judicial ethical blunders on a monthly and quarterly basis.
The legislation comes as Knox County faces a seemingly interminable tide of expensive and traumatic legal aftershocks resulting from ex-judge Richard Baumgartner’s unscrupulous activities while serving on the bench.
Baumgartner illegally obtained and abused prescription drugs for years in the Knoxville criminal court over which he presided before stepping down last winter. In March he pleaded guilty to a single count of official misconduct. As part of a judicial diversion agreement, Baumgartner was allowed to voluntarily resign from office and keep his government pension.
Convictions in numerous high-profile murders, sexual assaults and other violent criminal cases are in jeopardy as a result both of Baumgartner’s actions and the failure of law enforcement officials, court employees and other judges around him to report instances of his erratic, unstable, legally suspect and otherwise inappropriate behavior when they witnessed it.
“The unfortunate thing with Judge Baumgartner is that there will be a ripple effect throughout the entire Tennessee criminal justice system for years, if not decades,” Gregory Isaacs, a prominent Knoxville criminal defense attorney, told TNReport recently.
“The problem is there are going to be consequences — there are going to be decisions made that hurt victims,” added Isaacs, who is appealing a Baumgartner-court conviction of a man sentenced to 38 years in prison for raping his stepdaughter. “But unfortunately Judge Baumgartner has put everyone in the position of having to make those tough decisions.”
The Baumgartner episode is one of several that has raised questions among lawmakers and critics in the public about the effectiveness of Tennessee’s system for detecting and punishing judges who act in a fashion dishonorable or unfitting to their office.
Dennis said he’s confident, though, that the reform proposal he’s backing “will eliminate the appearance of impropriety that some folks perceived with our current Court of the Judiciary.” A practicing attorney and secretary of the House Judiciary Committee, Dennis added that he wants to see “a better functioning body to supervise and investigate” accusations of professional misconduct against judges.
Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said the latest bill, which is set for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee next week, will give people facing judges in court the best recourse to deal with unethical behavior.
“If they have a complaint of judicial ethics … then they will have an avenue that should be more transparent, more open, with people who are amenable to listening to the problem and working to a solution,” said Rich. “I think this will expose bad judges, but it will not punish good judges.”
Rich pulled from consideration the plan backed by Beavers Tuesday, SB1198, which called for a panel controlled by non-judges, including retirees from the judicial system, law enforcement and laypeople.
Mark Engler contributed to this article.