Haslam Undecided Whether Court of Judiciary Needs Reform

A panel of state lawmakers is expected to examine the Court of the Judiciary next week. But Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he’s as yet unsure whether he supports altering the make-up of the appointed panel charged with investigating ethical complaints against Tennessee judges.

The governor told reporters following the swearing in of a criminal appeals court judge in Williamson County Friday that the state’s legislative and judicial branches could both benefit from more and better communication with one another.

“I know there’s a lot of questions in the Legislature about, is it too much of judges reviewing judges reviewing judges. I’ll spend a little bit more time on that before I really have an opinion on that,” Haslam said after the oath was administered to Judge Jeffrey Bivins.

“There are some people in the Legislature that feel like, are we getting adequate oversight? And the judiciary is like, I don’t think every time there’s a complaint there needs to be a public hearing because there’s so many complaints along the way,” Haslam continued. “I actually think it’s one of those that maybe… a little bit more dialogue might help the process on both sides.”

Lawmakers plan to meet Tuesday to examine the Court of the Judiciary which investigates allegations of ethical misconduct among judges.

Reports surfaced in 2009 that the board largely dismissed complaints against judges and kept most disciplinary actions secret, although court officials say that practice is generally necessary to protect judges against unfounded accusations.

Sen. Mae Beavers, a long-time advocate of reorganizing the way the Court works and co-chairwoman of the ad hoc committee reviewing the Court of the Judiciary, said she is mulling the idea of requiring that more laypersons be appointed to the board now full of judges and attorneys.

She is also a fan of electing judges, another contentious issue that promises to surface during next year’s legislative session. Judges are currently appointed in Tennessee by the governor based on a list of recommended candidates.

“There’s been some controversy around the whole judicial selection process,” Haslam said before swearing in Bivins. “From where I sit, I have nothing but good things to say about the judicial selection committee and the process. Every time, I’ve had the good problem having to choose between good men and women to fill a spot. It’s an honor to get to do that.”

The Tennessee Bar Association, like Haslam, is happy with the current set-up for electing judges, said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the TBA. He plans on attending next week’s hearing, but says the current make-up of the Court of the Judiciary works.

“I think you have to be careful about calling change reform,” he said. “There’s a good balance at present. There are judges and lawyers who understand the judicial process and the limits and constraints that the judges operate under.”