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Cohen Named Ranking Member of House Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Justice

Press release from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. 09; January 21, 2015:

Congressman hopes to use senior post to vigorously protect civil liberties, prevent police overreach, and fight for voting rights; Congressman also retains seat on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet Subcommittee

[WASHINGTON, DC] – After serving on the House Judiciary Committee since joining Congress in 2007, Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09) was selected today to serve as Ranking Member of the Constitution and Civil Justice Subcommittee for the 114th Congress. The significant post, which Congressman Cohen also held for much of the 113th Congress, gives the Congressman broad jurisdiction over constitutional amendments, constitutional rights, Federal civil rights, ethics in government, medical malpractice and product liability, legal reform generally, and relevant oversight over those issues.

“Throughout both my legal and political careers, my central focus has been the fight to protect our civil rights,” said Congressman Cohen. “It is a compliment to be selected by my colleagues as the lead Democrat on the committee charged with safeguarding the Constitution and protecting our civil liberties. Whether fighting to secure the voting rights that we hold sacred, prevent police overreach and abuse, safeguarding a woman’s right to choose, or bringing justice to those impacted by racially-biased policies like mandatory minimum sentences, I remain committed to doing everything in my power to protect the Constitution and the civil rights of all Americans. I look forward to using this appointment, which I accept with deep humility and great responsibility, to continue the fight for the issues the people of Memphis sent me here for.”

Congressman Cohen, who was recently awarded with a perfect score for his votes on civil rights issues during the 113th Congress, was also selected to serve on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet. That subcommittee has jurisdiction over patent and trademark laws, as well as regulation of information technology, Administration of U.S. Courts, Federal Rules of Evidence, Civil and Appellate Procedure, and judicial ethics.

To Promote Judicial-System Awareness, TN Supreme Court Moves on Campus to Hear Cases

Tennessee’s highest court recently heard arguments in three cases at Middle Tennessee State University as part of a program that seeks to improve students’ understanding of how the judicial system works.

The Tennessee Supreme Court had been invited to MTSU by the American Democracy Project as part of their Constitution Day celebrations, with the intent of improving the understanding of how the judicial branch operates among students and faculty, said Dr. Mary Evins, an associate professor of history at MTSU, and the coordinator of the MTSU Chapter of the ADP.

“I think universally it’s understood that there is an inherent understanding of the executive branch — both at the federal and the state level — and there is an inherent understanding of the legislative branch, whether we love it or not people have opinions about it, but often the Judiciary tends to be the component of our tripartite system that is quite typically overlooked, and it’s such a meaningful part,” Evins told TNReport.

The justices held court at the university as part of its Supreme Court Advancing Legal Education for Students program, which is intended to “educate high school students about the judicial branch of government” by giving them the opportunity to hear oral arguments for a Supreme Court case, according to the Tennessee Courts System website.

“It’s perfectly suited for university students because our students really think and perceive at a higher level, and they have the opportunity for faculty to really go in depth with them, to read the case briefs and to be really, really prepared for intelligent dialogue with the Justices,” Evins said of the program, which took place for the first time on a university campus since its creation in 1995.

Students from the university had the opportunity to sit in on the oral arguments of three cases to be heard before the court, after which they had an hour-long debriefing session with the attorneys handling the cases, where they were able to ask questions about the specific cases, as well as the judicial process in general.

The opportunity offered by the program extends further than better understanding of the judicial process, and also provides students the opportunity to learn how to behave and dress in an official court setting, Evins said.

One professor of business law at MTSU framed the importance of understanding the operations of the judiciary with the upcoming 2014 vote to change the Tennessee Constitution and formally implement the Tennessee Plan for regular judicial retention elections of governor-appointed judges.

“The process we use to choose state Supreme Court justices and appellate court judges is changing, and in the next year, our citizens are going to be voting on a proposal to change the state constitution,” Lara Womack Daniel, an attorney and MTSU business law professor whose classes attended Tuesday’s sessions, said in an MTSU press release.

Ramsey Indicates Possible Committee-Assignment Shakeups

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey told reporters last week that he expects Senate leadership to stay the same, but indicated there might be some committee-level shakeups.

In his role as Senate speaker, Ramsey has final say on which senators get placed on which committees.

“I’m not starting afresh, but just because you’re on a committee right now doesn’t mean you’re going to stay on that committee,” the Blountville Republican said.

When it comes to committee chairs he said: “Possibly there may be some changes there, too. I just have to figure out how it works out and make sure, again, that we have the most qualified people in the right spots.”

For example, when asked by reporters if he would retain Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, on the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, he declined to answer.

“I’ve not gotten that far down the road on who’s where,” Ramsey said. “There may be some changes different places.”

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.