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.