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.