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Liberty and Justice

Judicial Ethics Panel Makeup Debated

The Legislature is considering proposals for a new judicial ethics panel, either made up mostly of judges or laypeople.

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.

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