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Beavers Considers ‘Starting From Scratch’ on Court of Judiciary

In one of her strongest statements to date, Sen. Mae Beavers raised the specter Tuesday of doing away with the board that polices judges.

The Court of the Judiciary has been the subject of intense legislative attention this fall as Beavers has sought to revamp the make-up and operations of the body. Critics of the Court have said the system is one of judges protecting judges, and that reform is needed.

“I’m very much considering starting from scratch because there’s so much resistance from the Court of the Judiciary, the Supreme Court, to make even minor changes,” Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said after a meeting of a House and Senate joint subcommittee.

Beavers has been a vocal critic of the COJ and as Senate Judiciary chairwoman led an examination of the court’s practices in September. She walked away saying the Court should be more transparent, require judges to disclose conflicts of interest, make disciplinary actions against judges public and add more laypeople to the panel.

Democrats generally agree that steps need to be taken by the judiciary to show the public and the Legislature they’re taking complaints about judges seriously, said the House minority party’s caucus chairman, Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory.

“Ninety-five percent of the judges out there are great public servants, but they’ve got a few bad apples that for some reason the judiciary seem to be protecting,” Turner told TNReport. “I think (if) they don’t do something the next couple months to demonstrate they want to get rid of real bad judges, then I think (the Court of the Judiciary is) gone.”

Presiding Judge Chris Craft, who heads up the Court of the Judiciary, says judges support renaming the committee, adjusting who appoints members to the court and other changes.

“We’re trying to make the Legislature happy and allay their concerns while at the same time making sure that the right people get appointed to the court,” said Craft. “We have 16 judges and attorneys and laypeople who really care about having a good judiciary, and we don’t want it to become political. We don’t want it to be some base on which you have other agendas.”

Legislators are also considering plans that would essentially eliminate the need for the Judicial Nominating Commission, which recommends judges for the governor to appoint.

Some lawmakers contend the state’s current process for selecting judges, dubbed the “Tennessee Plan,” violates the state Constitution by not requiring a vote of the people. Several lawmakers want voters to directly elect judges or switch to a plan that mirrors the federal selection process, in which the president nominates and the Senate confirms.

In a sign of displeasure, the subcommittee issued a “neutral” recommendation on whether the the Court of the Judiciary should be funded next year. The subcommittee decided not to weigh in on the Judicial Nominating Commission and a separate panel called the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, forwarding those issues back to the full Government Operations Committee by default. The full committee will now decide.

The decisions send a clear message, said one lawmaker.

“That’s as close as being shot in the head by the Legislature as you can be shot in the head by the Legislature. So they’re not out of the hot seat yet,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport.

Sen. Mae Beavers Sets Sights on Court of the Judiciary

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.”

Hearings on Court of Judiciary Underway

Almost a dozen witnesses both challenged and defended the integrity of the state’s processes for investigating ethical complaints against Tennessee judges during a legislative hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Questions surrounding the Court of the Judiciary’s effectiveness have centered on whether it perfunctorily dismisses too many complaints against judges — and whether the Court, made up primarily of judges appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, is more concerned with protecting members of the judiciary than in rooting out and punishing judicial misconduct.

“I would think that (the Court of the Judiciary) would want to do something to remedy that perception by the pubic — that something is being swept under the carpet,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, co-chair of the ad hoc committee examining the Court’s activities.

Several lawmakers on the joint House-Senate committee expressed their desire to make disciplinary complaint proceedings against judges more transparent to the public. Also discussed was the possibility of adding statutory teeth to requirements that judges acknowledge potential conflicts of interest that might compromise their impartiality. Broadening the make-up of the judicial-ethics investigation panel to include people who are not directly associated with or working in the legal profession was suggested as well.

The Court of the Judiciary’s presiding judge, Chris Craft, said he’s open to considering a range of possible reform recommendations for improving the public’s confidence in the Tennessee judiciary. But he cautioned against any radical departures from the established arrangements and existing processes without thorough exploration of potential ramifications.

Craft said he opposes removing judges entirely from the Court of the Judiciary and replacing them with “all laypersons, as some bill suggested last year.”

“But as far as who selects the judges, we don’t really care as long as we know that they’re ethical judges selected to do the work,” Craft said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday at 1 p.m. No substantive action on legislation can occur until the General Assembly convenes for its regular session in January.

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.

Court of Judiciary Elects New Leadership, Promises Transparency

Press Release by Tennessee State Courts; August 24, 2011:

Nashville, Tenn. – Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft was today elected presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary, the body that handles complaints against judges and imposes sanctions for judicial misconduct.  Craft replaces Judge Don Ash, who served as presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary for the past four years.

“I appreciate the confidence the members of the Court of the Judiciary has shown in me by selecting me as their Presiding Judge,” Craft said. “I also want to thank Judge Ash for his incredible dedication to the Court of the Judiciary and commend him for his work as presiding judge during the past four years.”

“I look forward to working with the Court of the Judiciary and members of the legislature as we continue the very important task of safeguarding the ethics of the Judicial Branch of government and ensuring that all Tennesseans have ethical, fair and impartial judges,” Craft said.

Craft has served as criminal court judge in the 30th Judicial District since 1994. Prior to his appointment to the bench, Craft served as an assistant district attorney for 12 years, the last three of which he served as senior trial prosecutor in the major violations unit. Since 2001, Craft has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis School of law. Craft is vice president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and Dean of the Judicial Academy.

The Court of the Judiciary also elected Judge Jean Stanley as presiding judge pro tem, who will act as presiding judge in cases where the presiding judge must recuse himself. Since 1992, Stanley has served as circuit court judge in the 1st Judicial District, which includes Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington counties.

During its meeting, the Court of the Judiciary also released its annual report, which provides statistical data and information about the Court’s efforts during the past fiscal year. During the 2010-2011 Fiscal Year, nine complaints resulted in a public reprimand.

In an effort to improve transparency, this year’s annual report offers greater detail about the Court of Judiciary’s efforts, including more comprehensive breakdown of the disposition of cases, a year-by-year comparison of statistical information and a summary about the types of conduct that resulted in private discipline.

“We believe Tennesseans deserve greater transparency about our efforts to investigate complaints against judges and this new annual report format serves as our first step in that direction,” Craft said.

The Court of the Judiciary’s 2010-2011 annual report, along with reports from the past six years, may be downloaded online at http://www.tncourts.gov/court-judiciary.

Download the annual report here: http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/court_of_judiciary_2010-20011_annual_report.pdf