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Judgment Call: How Many Judges Judging Judges is Just?

There’s a stalemate in the Statehouse right now over how best to police the Tennessee judiciary for unscrupulous members.

Consensus tends to exist across party lines that stepped-up prosecution and punishment is needed for judges guilty of ethical misfires, misconduct or otherwise failing to dutifully discharge the canons of professional responsibility.

But the jury’s hung in the General Assembly’s judiciary committees over how best to get there.

Majority-party lawmakers have launched competing bills to reconstitute the state’s judicial ethics board, but a point of contention is the new tribunal’s membership makeup.

One measure, HB1198, is sponsored by Rep. Jim Coley, who is teaming up with Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. Beavers has her sights set on eradicating the Court of the Judiciary in current form and replacing it with a new judicial discipline-enforcement body consisting of fewer practicing judges and more laypeople.

That bill, introduced in the House committee Tuesday, would staff the “Board of Judicial Conduct” with three retired judges, plus current or retired district attorneys, public defenders, law enforcement officers and appointees from the governor, speakers of the House and Senate and the Tennessee Bar Association.

“I’d prefer more checks and balances and a moderate array of people that would serve on the Court of the Judiciary,” Coley said.

The competing measure, which is favored by judges, would recreate the body by giving it a new name and requiring fresh appointments to the panel. It would retain a 10-6 sitting judge-to-layman ratio. Three of the laymen would be practicing attorneys.

Sen. Mike Faulk, the sponsor of SB2671, says he’s confident he can convince lawmakers to maintain the panel’s ratio while boosting the responsibilities and formal decision-making influence of serving members who are not judges.

Lawmakers expect to take up the measures next week, although Beavers was uncertain if either would be ready for a vote by then. Both bills “need some improvement,” she said.

House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson said Tuesday neither bill likely has majority support on his committee. “It would be very close to a tie, and I don’t think either one of them would get out as of today,” said the Cleveland Republican.

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