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Property Disclosure Requirement for Lawmakers Hits Snag

An ethics bill requiring Tennessee policymakers to disclose all real property they own other than their primary home has hit a snag this year, and the bill sponsor said she doesn’t expect it to pass.

Rep. Susan Lynn said she would still like to get the bill back in committee this year as a thermometer test.

Susan Lynn

“I perceive that a lot of members think that it’s a good idea, but I perceive also that a lot of members strongly oppose it,” the Mt. Juliet Republican said. “So it may need a little bit more time to become more apparent to the members as to why it’s important.”

Originally assigned to the House Local Government Committee, HB1063 was moved back to the speaker’s desk after Lynn failed to appear on two separate occasions to present her bill. However, Chairman Matthew Hill made a procedural error by invoking Rule 13, meant to kick in after the sponsor fails to appear for a third time.

To get the bill back on track, the House clerk’s office told Lynn she will have to see Rep. Joe Carr, chairman of the Local Government subcommittee.

“I need to call the clerk’s office to find out why I need to talk to the subcommittee chair, “ Lynn told TNReport.com. “I think it was a mistake we’re going to try and get worked out.”

HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.

Earlier in March, Lynn told TNReport.com that she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement if that’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.

“I think it’s very important for local government to make this disclosure, especially the planning commission members,” she said. “I think property holdings that one has, especially holdings that they hold for some future opportunity, should be disclosed, [because] maybe they’re in a position to vote on things that will make the opportunity better.”

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, agrees that the bill “offers a lot for citizens who don’t have the advantage of public office.”

“I think it’s critical for this legislation, or anything similar to it, to be enacted, simply to level the playing field because of economics,” said Flanagan, the former state bureau chief for The Associated Press.

During public discussion of a proposed development, if “everyone knows who owns property and where that property is located, then everyone knows where everyone stands. When people own property and don’t disclose it, I think that’s a clear conflict of interest.”

Still, the former newspaper editor doesn’t hold out high hopes for the bill’s passage.

“I think in terms of this legislation, the chances of it passing are probably slim with the legislator exemption,” Flanagan said. “If they’re not exempt, I don’t think it has a chance of passing.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Lynn’s Ethics Bill Calls for More Disclosure by Lawmakers

Saying more openness is needed on the part of Tennessee policymakers, Rep. Susan Lynn has introduced legislation that would require the disclosure of all real property they own other than their primary home.

The Mt. Juliet Republican’s HB 1063 would require all elected and certain appointed public officials, such as those on local and regional planning commissions or state boards, to disclose any real property owned by them, their spouses or any minor children living at home.

“Back in 2006, when we did the ethics reform, we wanted this to be part of the disclosure and simply couldn’t get it done at that time,” said Lynn, who served in the House for eight years before running for state Sen. Mae Beavers’ seat and losing in 2010.

“Leaving the Legislature for two years, like I did, you start thinking about the things you wish you’d done or could have done, and this was one of those things.”

Before the 108th General Assembly session began, Lynn, who chairs the Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee, said she learned of a bill filed by freshman Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston that called for exempting planning commission members from such disclosure.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is not good,’” Lynn said. “I was getting a lot of Tea Party emails, and they were basically indicting all of us for filing that bill.”

Lynn said she wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so she called him and asked why he had filed it.

“He said his county mayor asked him to,” she said, adding that after she explained to Calfee the importance of more disclosure, not less, he withdrew his bill and thanked her for calling him.

Lynn’s bill would require the disclosure of the address of the property and the month and year of its acquisition, but not everyone in the General Assembly is in favor of it.

Many have told her that the information is a matter of public record, and that should be sufficient. Her argument is that since it is public record, “What’s wrong with putting it all in one neat, consolidated place to make that disclosure?”

“I’m not feeling a warm breeze right now from the [Local Government] committee,” said Lynn, who postponed a vote on the bill until March 12. “I really feel like I’m standing out there alone. I know it’s the right thing to do, and I hope they will be amenable.”

She said she would entertain an amendment excepting state legislators from the new disclosure requirement, if it’s the only way to make it a requirement for local government officials.

“I think it’s very important for local government to make this disclosure, especially the planning commission members,” she said. “I think property holdings that one has, especially holdings that they hold for some future opportunity, should be disclosed, [because] maybe they’re in a position to vote on things that will make the opportunity better.”

She said she hopes that it doesn’t come to that, though.

“I hope my colleagues see the big picture. They won’t be in office together forever.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@capitolnewstn.com, on Twitter @CapitolNews_TN or at 615-442-8667.

Forrester: DesJarlais Should Step Down

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester on Monday called on embattled US Rep. Scott DesJarlais to resign, saying the Republican Congressman “ran his medical practice like a Craigslist cathouse.”

Forrester’s comments came in the wake of news reports this weekend from the Chattanooga Times Free Press that a second woman has come forward to say that DesJarlais, a physician, had a sexual relationship with her while she was under his medical care.

From the Times Free Press:

The second woman described DesJarlais as “the nicest guy” and said he cooked dinner for her at their first get-together in 2000.

But she also said they smoked marijuana during their relationship and remembered DesJarlais prescribing her pain medication on dates at his home.

Also speaking at the conference was Ronald Wilson, a Brentwood neurologist, who the Tennessee Democratic Party asked to attend.

“Anything that is less than providing good health care to our patients is regrettable,” Wilson said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com on Twitter at @trentseibert or at 615-669-9501.

Judicial Ethics Oversight Body Getting Facelift, Name Change

Tennessee lawmakers say they’re on the cusp of reforming how the state’s judges are policed and punished for lapses in moral or professional judgement. But many of the changes they want to impose amount to tinkering with procedures most taxpayers likely won’t notice.

It will still be controlled by judges — although broadened to include members retired from the bench. Complaints against judges will remain shrouded in secrecy, though in some cases lawmakers will be informed.

Lawmakers deny, however, that the changes on tap amount mostly to minor tinkering with procedures that in the end won’t depart too noticeably from the status quo.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, who has spearheaded the effort, said it “remains to be seen” if the reforms will go far enough. “In the end you have what you have. This is what we have for right now,” said the Mt. Juliet Republican.

“I know some people aren’t going to be happy with it but we’re going to have to wait and see how it works,” she said.

The upper chamber on Thursday voted 29-0 to break up the current judicial ethics panel, the Court of the Judiciary, in favor of building a new “Board of Judicial Conduct.”

Under SB2671 endorsed by the Senate, the COJ will disband June 30 then launch under the new name July 1. It would maintain its make-up of 10 judges to six non-judges, with new appointees coming from various judicial conferences, the governor and top legislative leaders. Now, most are appointed by the Supreme Court.

Some of the panelists may be retired judges, according to the legislation, to try putting professional distance between the ranks of sitting judges and their peers. That became a compromise after Beavers and a band of other lawmakers pushed hard to put more laypeople on the panel.

The new board would also be required to share more statistics about complaints and report to the House and Senate speakers any time a judge is reprimanded more than once. This was another key issue of consternation as several lawmakers argued during the committee process that the complaints should be open to public review.

“To come up with a bill that nobody’s completely happy with but everybody agrees with will be a sea change in how judges are disciplined, the information that’s released on (these) disciplines and complaints,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who crossed his fingers, adding, “I hope it will work.”

The one change all parties agreed with is taking power away from the board’s hired disciplinary counsel to decide which complaints lack merit. Under the new board, a three-person subcommittee with at least one non-judge would make yes-no decisions about whether an accusation against a judge deserves investigation.

The legislation now awaits a vote on the House floor.

Judges, Lawmakers Strike Deal on Ethics Board

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to compromise legislation that would revamp the Court of the Judiciary, an ethical watchdog panel charged with probing and punishing judges accused of improper or unprofessional behavior.

Members of the committee found common ground on a list of provisions that will rename and reconstitute the makeup of the body with the intent of emboldening it to more aggressively investigate complaints against judges. The new board would also be required to report on its official inquiries to top House and Senate leaders.

“Nobody is completely happy, and nobody is completely miserable, and I hope that’s the situation we’ve arrived at,” Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, said just prior to the 8-0 judiciary committee vote on Senate Bill 2671.

The key change requires that the board hand the two General Assembly speakers a rundown of statistics on each judge reprimanded more than once. Information on “public reprimands” is already available, but “private reprimands” would be available only to the speakers.

“We’re very satisfied with that,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who worked with the Legislature to broker the deal.

“We think that’s a fair balance because the Legislature has an obligation under their impeachment power to have notice of what’s going on,” he said.

Concern that the Court of the Judiciary lacks independence, transparency and resolve has existed for some time. In September Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers hosted a series of hearings examining purported flaws within the Court of the Judiciary. The key phrase lawmakers like Beavers have used to sum up what they see as the core dysfunction within the Court of the Judiciary is “judges judging judges.”

The Mt. Juliet Republican, who has been the driving force behind judicial ethics reform, offered little in the way of comment to the committee as the sponsor gave her credit for pushing the issue, saying only, “I think you can say I’ve been a lightening rod, and I feel it.”

Senate Bill 2671 would set up a new panel to review ethics complaints against judges, called the Board of Judicial Conduct. It would still be controlled by judges.

Ten current or former judges, appointed by various councils of judges, would sit on the panel. In addition, the governor and chamber speakers would each pick an attorney and a layperson to join the board, for a total of six non-judges.

The bill also requires a subcommittee within the panel to decide whether to trash a complaint or use it to launch an investigation. That group would be required to have at least one non-judge. Currently, the board’s disciplinary counsel decides whether a complaint has merit, not its members.

The last time bill sponsor Sen. Mike Faulk ran a similar measure in the committee, it stalled on a 3-3-3 tie.

Judges and reformers in the Legislature have argued over the bill. The latest reincarnation results from a compromise by the judges. Prior to adding the component sending information to the speakers, the measure faced criticism in the House where some lawmakers argued the new board still lacks public accountability and gives judges too much power to police their own. The House Judiciary Committee still approved the bill, advancing it to another committee.

If the plan passes, it would dissolve the current Court of the Judiciary on June 30 and launch the Board of Judicial Conduct July 1.

Faulk, R-Church Hill, said he expects the full Senate to consider the bill Monday. The House measure faces a vote in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday before it can proceed to the full chamber.

Senate: No Judicial Diversion for Public Servants

Legislators say they want to make sure their own kind get more than a slap on the wrist if they’re caught breaking the law and abusing the public trust.

The legislation comes almost a year after Richard Baumgartner, a former criminal court judge in Knoxville, pleaded guilty to official misconduct for illegally using prescription painkillers he acquired from drug offenders who’d appeared in his court. Baumgartner was granted diversion, which allowed him to avoid serving jail time.

“I think that people who hold public office ought to be held to a higher standard,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, who is sponsoring the bill.

Yager told TNReport the Baumgartner scandal “was certainly one of several” involving East Tennessee public officials that prompted him to sponsor the legislation — although he declined to get specific.

“That’s not to say that 99 percent of the state and local officials in this state aren’t hardworking, conscientious and honest, but it’s that less than one percent who commit malfeasance in their office give everybody else a bad name,” Yager said.

The measure would add to the list of crimes not eligible for diversion “any offense committed by any elected or appointed person in the executive, legislative or judicial branch of the state or any political division of the state, which offense was committed in the person’s official capacity or involved the duties of the person’s office.”

Even though nobody voted against the bill, not everybody was for it. Three senators abstained from voting on SB2566: Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, and Joe Haynes, D-Nashville.

“If you’re going to take off diversion for that crime, we need to consider a lot of other crimes,” Haynes told reporters after speaking out against the bill on the Senate floor. “Not that people who do that shouldn’t be punished. Sure they should. But diversion shouldn’t be removed for that crime any more than it should be removed… for embezzlers or any other serious crime.”

Baumgartner pleaded guilty to one felony count of official misconduct and was granted two years of parole instead of a prison sentence for the conviction. Defense lawyers in numerous cases over which Baumgartner presided either have or are considering asking for retrials because Judge Baumgartner was likely impaired on the bench during court proceedings.

If he avoids further brushes with the law, Baumgartner’s record will be wiped clean after two years due to the current diversion law.

In Tennessee, diversion is applicable in certain cases involving a first-time offender. The second chance is granted in cases where the defendant has never been granted pretrial or judicial diversion, has not been convicted for a felony, or a Class A or B misdemeanor. Diversion is available if the crime at hand is not a Class A or B felony, DUI,  misdemeanor sex offense or conspiracy, attempt, or solicitation of certain sex offenses.

The companion House measure, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, has yet to move in a House Judiciary subcommittee this year, but is scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

Judicial Ethics Panel Makeup Debated

Judges and lawmakers agree the state’s system for policing judges is flawed, but there’s so far little agreement as to how much sway judges themselves should have over that watchdog role.

Lawmakers are considering two major bills this year to recreate a panel responsible for disciplining judges who cross ethical lines. The major difference between the two proposals is just how many judges can sit on the new panel — and both sides are so far unwilling to budge.

“The appearance of judges appointing judges to hear complaints on judges doesn’t give them much credibility,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, a top critic of the current panel, the Court of the Judiciary.

Judges pitched their own reforms to a legislative committee in SB2671 Wednesday, suggesting the lawmakers replace the current ethics panel with a “Board of Judicial Conduct” that would shift responsibility for discarding complaints to board members rather than staff. The new board would also produce quarterly public reports instead of the current yearly statistics, establish a legislative liaison, and operate with a lower threshold for pursuing an investigation.

“Certainly there have been issues, and I think we’re trying to address those issues,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who is leading the charge for the Tennessee Judicial Conference’s ad hoc committee on Court of the Judiciary legislation. “We have some new membership. I think some of us are looking harder at cases and taking a little tougher line.”

The biggest problem Beavers has with the judicial branch’s proposal is the new board would retain too many judges, 10, plus six laypeople.

Beavers would prefer her own bill, which would dump the current board and build it anew, shrinking the board down to 12 people, with four as sitting judges. Her measure is on the Senate floor and is up for debate Feb. 9.

“I think you’d actually find that every single judge in the state of Tennessee, from the part-time municipal judge all the way up through every member of the Supreme Court, are actually united totally against that particular bill,” said Bivins, who also sits on the COJ.

The Senate Government Operations Committee advanced the judges’ measure with a “positive” recommendation on a 5-1-3 vote with little discussion. It now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it will likely face opposition from Beavers.

Beavers said she would also like the ethics panel to inform the House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairpeople when the board has received multiple complaints about the same judge.

Ethics Chief Wants Online-Only Courses For Lawmakers

The state’s chief ethics guru wants lawmakers to complete required ethics trainings online instead of listening to him lecture yearly about rules on accepting gifts and reporting donations.

Drew Rawlins says the move would give lawmakers online access to the latest state ethics rules and flexibility to review those at their leisure instead of crowding into one chamber for a refresher course and a packet outlining ethical responsibilities every year.

But some lawmakers say they like the lecture hall setup to satisfy their annual training course requirements, which they fulfilled for 2012 Thursday.

“It’s always good to revisit the core principals in the code. Everybody’s busy,” said Mark Norris, the Senate majority leader. “This wasn’t difficult today to all get together to get the handouts again, to hear the words.”

“That didn’t take long. It didn’t hurt anybody,” said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Old Hickory. “I think I’d rather do it up here.”

State law says the ethics commission “shall offer an annual current issues course for members of the General Assembly,” but doesn’t specify whether that class can be held online. Rawlins, executive director of the Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, said he’d like to make that change going into 2013, but wasn’t sure whether he’d need the Legislature’s OK.

The law is nuanced, but lawmakers are banned from accepting meals or other gifts worth more than $55 from lobbyists or their employers, such as a private company or union. That figure that goes up annually relative to the consumer price index. Some other meals and gifts are also banned, depending on specific circumstances.

Rawlins’ half-hour presentation before lawmakers — which also satisfied ethics training for lobbyists and employers of lobbyists — covered the state’s ban on receiving gifts of value, due dates for the latest round of campaign disclosures and the 10-day limit lawmakers have to return or pay for a gift before the exchange is considered an ethics law violation.

Each member of the General Assembly attending the joint ethics training in the House of Representatives received a 63-page packet on ethics laws ranging from whether lawmakers can accept gifts from longtime friends who are registered lobbyists to whether it’s OK for lobbyists to pay for lawmakers’ meals.

Ethics bills aren’t high on the Legislature’s agenda this year, and neither is the desire to revisit the duties of the commission — whose records of complaints are kept secret by law, a transparency issue reported on last year by TNReport.

Lawmakers have 25 ethics bills in the queue right now, four of which passed during last year’s legislative session. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he doesn’t see lawmakers pushing too hard in the way of new ethics laws this year.

“I haven’t seen anything on that,” he said.

TN Bar Association Proposes New Judicial Conduct Rules

Press Release from the Tennessee Bar Association, Feb. 24, 2011:

New disqualification and recusal standards, procedure urged

NASHVILLE, Feb. 25, 2011 — New stricter standards and procedures for determining disqualification and recusal of judges, changes in restrictions on campaign activities by judges, and a new prohibition on judges presiding over cases in which they participate in judicial settlement conferences are among the changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct being recommended in a petition filed with the Tennessee Supreme Court today by the Tennessee Bar Association.

The proposed rule changes come as a result of an 18-month long study of the Code of Judicial Conduct undertaken by a task force of judges and lawyers. In its petition, the TBA says one of the reasons for the new recusal and disqualification standards and procedures is the “explosion of contested, big money campaigns for judicial office.” The petition cites a U.S. Supreme Court decision, which found that huge contributions in a West Virginia Supreme Court case had raised questions regarding whether the participation of a judge violated the due process clause. Commenting on the proposed changes, TBA President Sam Elliott said:

“A key role of the Tennessee Bar Association is to continually consider and propose updates and improvements to the various rules that govern the practice of law in the state. The changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct proposed by the task force are the result of the outstanding work of lawyers and judges at the highest level of our profession, and will prove to be a clear guideline to our judges as they fulfill their essential function in our society. The TBA is grateful to those lawyers and judges on the task force who so generously gave their time and talents to this effort.”

The task force was chaired by prominent Chattanooga lawyer Max Bahner with Knoxville lawyer Sarah Sheppeard serving as the Reporter. The group is made up of 13 members with a majority of the panel being judges. The group used the 2007 American Bar Association Model Code of Judicial Conduct as a guide, which Task Force chair Bahner called the “most influential guide for such rules, subject to a states’ distinctive practices.” Twenty-two states have approved revisions as a result of the changes and twenty more have established committees or have published proposed revisions.

The 80- page proposal includes provisions that:

1. Provide greater guidance on judicial disqualification and recusal. Included are factors such as the levels of campaign support for the judge or the judge’s opponent, the timing of the support and independent expenditures.

2. Require compliance with new procedures for motions to determine incompetence, disqualification and recusal.

3. Consistent with recent constitutional decisions, significantly lessen the restrictions on campaign activities while making it clear that campaign committees and judges must fully comply with campaign finance disclosure statutes, and that such activities may lead to disqualification.

4. Include within the provisions related to judges’ families a person with whom another person maintains a household and an intimate relationship other than a person to whom he or she is legally married.

5. Clarify application of certain code provisions to senior judges, part-time judges, continuing part-time judges and temporary judges.

6. Clarify when judges may provide a reference or recommendation.

7. Clarify a judge’s responsibility to report violations of lawyer or judicial ethics.

8. Permit judges, spouses and guests to attend events associated with educational, civic, religious, fraternal and charitable organizations.

9. Limit participation in activities of organizations, which engage in political advocacy in limited subject areas or consistently for one side in lawsuits.

10. Emphasize that judges must perform their duties promptly, as well as competently, diligently and cooperatively.

If the court follows its usual practice in considering such recommendations, the proposal will be published for a period of time for public comment, followed by closer examination of any issues on which there is substantial disagreement.

ABOUT THE TENNESSEE BAR ASSOCIATION

The Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) is the largest professional association in Tennessee with more than 11,000 members. Founded in 1881, the TBA provides opportunities for continuing legal education, professional development and public service. The Young Lawyers Division is comprised of association members age 36 and younger or within the first five years of practice regardless of age. The division is dedicated to helping new lawyers succeed in the profession through mentoring programs, continuing legal education and peer networking, as well as find fulfillment in the practice of law through pro bono legal work and public service projects.

Lawmaker Questions Appropriateness of Justices Lobbying Legislators

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said Monday he believes it would be improper for members of the Tennessee Supreme Court to lobby the Legislature against efforts to move the state toward the election of Supreme Court judges.

Nevertheless, Bell has a meeting scheduled with Chief Justice Cornelia Clark on the issue later this week.

Clark told a group of journalists last week that efforts in the legislature to pull back from the state’s retention election system are misguided, and she said she has been involved in discussions with lawmakers voicing her objection to the legislation.

Bell has three bills dealing with judicial elections. He wants to see the state revert to where it was before the Tennessee Plan, which currently seats judges, was implemented.

Bell winces when he brings up potential impropriety. But he said in an interview Monday that he felt the need to say what he believed.

“I think it at least borders on improper,” he said. “If they’re up here lobbying to protect the system, I think it’s improper for them to be doing so. This is a legislative matter, not a judicial matter. This is something I believe should be decided by the Legislature. We’re the ones that created it in 1971. If we choose to continue it, change it or do away with it, it should be up to us.

“Just as it would be improper for me to go and tell them how to rule on a specific case, I think it’s improper for them to be involved in this. That’s probably going to to get me some enemies, but that’s what I believe.”

Clark, speaking to a Tennessee Press Association meeting last week, said, “We, and I personally, have had a number of conversations with legislators, and we’ll continue to do that.

“We are engaging in a good dialogue, and there are some good-faith differences of opinion about what the right answer is.”

Bell has three bills, one of which he was still putting the finishing touches on Monday, regarding judicial elections. That last measure — the one he prefers — is one that would essentially wipe the slate clean of the Tennessee Plan and the let the debate begin anew. But he says his motivation is the clear and simple language in the state Constitution that calls for elections of judges.

In Tennessee, a special commission submits names to the governor, who makes the appointments to the bench. After a judge is on the bench, each judge is subject to what is known as a retention election, where citizens vote up or down on whether to retain the judge.

Bell, and many others, believe the retention election process is inconsistent with clear language in the Constitution.

“The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State,” the Tennessee Constitution reads.

Bell has another bill that, short of eliminating the retentions plan, calls for the nonpartisan election of Supreme Court judges from five districts across the state that would be drawn by the Legislature. It would also prohibit the candidate from knowing who contributed to a campaign and the amounts of the contributions.

A third bill sponsored by Bell would require that a judge receive 75 percent of the votes in a retention election, as opposed to the current majority requirement. Since the plan was put in place, only one Supreme Court judge, Penny White, has been removed in a retention election.

Bell, who says he is fundamentally a constitutionalist, is in his first year as a member of the Senate, after serving two terms in the House.

“I got interested in this issue when I was first elected to the House, when I found out what the Constitution actually says,” Bell said. “Article 6, Section 3 says judges shall be elected by qualified voters of the state. I think that wording is very simple and understood by anybody.”

He said if that phrase were put before the people of Tennessee, he believes 95 percent of them would interpret it to mean elections like the state has for other offices.

Bell calls the current system “kind of a charade.”

“It’s almost set up to where we’re intentionally keeping voters from knowing anything about the people running,” he said. “They may all be great people. They may deserve to be retained or re-elected, but under the process, we can’t know anything about them.”

The issue centers on concerns that electing judges at the appellate level can unduly politicize the judicial system. A fear exists that judge’s campaigns would begin to mirror typical political campaigns, where conventional political functions like television commercials could influence elections in ways that are not in the interest of justice.

Bell emphasizes that he is not arguing whether such campaigning would occur if open elections were held. He says the state is simply in no position to ignore what the Constitution clearly intends.

But even Bell concedes there could be political ramifications in part of the legislation he has introduced. His bill for establishing five distinct districts could be subject to gerrymandering, he acknowledged. And he said while one of his bills calls for the candidate being unable to know the origins or amounts of campaign contributions, the people should have access to that information. Bell said he has tried to go by models in the trial courts to craft his legislation.

As for requiring approval by 75 percent of voters in order to be retained on the bench, Bell said it should be higher than a simple majority.

“They need a higher standard, a higher bar to cross to be re-elected,” Bell said. “Many states that have similar plans require 66 percent of the vote. I figured I would start at 75.”