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Slow Deliberations on Judicial Reforms This Year

Legislators are grappling with a handful of bills that would reform how high-ranking judges are chosen to take the bench, who should police judges for ethics violations and how they should be punished.

“We feel like there are substantial changes that are taking place, as well as just paying more attention to the situation and being more attuned to it as well,” said Criminal Appeals Court Judge Jeff Bivins, who is now regularly on Capitol Hill talking with lawmakers about judicial ethics legislation. He also doubles as a member of the Court of the Judiciary, which polices unethical judges, and serves on the Tennessee Judicial Conference.

“It may well be that we’re back next year, asking the Legislature to fine-tune a few more areas that we find could be done better, and could instill more confidence in the system with the public,” he said.

Here’s a breakdown of the status of judicial reform bills:

Judges Judging Judges, SB2671/HB2935: After weeks of arguing and haggling over the makeup of a new board to replace the Court of the Judiciary, a watchdog for judicial ethics, the House has advanced a so-called compromise. It requires at least one non-judge and two other members to initially vet ethics complaints. But there’s pushback — the Senate Judiciary Committee shot down the last attempt at a compromise last month based on concern over of a lack of transparency of complaints against judges and what opponents call a high 10-6, judge to laypeople, ratio. The bill is up again in that committee Tuesday and in House Government Operations Wednesday.

Judicial Ethics Overhaul 1.0, SB1088/HB1198: Sen. Mae Beavers, the driving force behind injecting more accountability in the judicial ethics system, has a bill of her own to reconstitute the board policing judges. Her proposal made it to the Senate floor last year and never budged. Rep. Barrett Rich took the House version — assigning eight non-judges and four judges to the new board — off Judiciary Committee’s calendar last month and backed its competitor bill, HB2935 (above). But Beavers’ version is up on the Senate floor Thursday.

Public Official Punishments, SB2566/HB2763: Lawmakers want to ensure public officials found guilty of lower-level crimes committed in office are exempt from get-out-of-jail-free cards. The measure passed overwhelmingly in the Senate to bar officials with misdemeanor charges from being given judicial diversion, which clears the mishap from their record if they stay out of trouble. It’s much like a deal disgraced former Judge Richard Baumgartner struck last year for buying prescription pills from a parolee. The bill is stalled in the House, generally because bill sponsor, Rep. Ryan Haynes, has been wrapped up in other work, he says, but he adds he should be running the bill in the Judiciary subcommittee soon.

Legitimizing How Judges Are Picked: The governor along with the House and Senate speakers want the state’s guiding document changed to require the governor to pick judges from a list, with the judges later facing popular elections — as is done now. The Constitution calls for judges to face elections, but some say that means popular elections like the ones lawmakers face. Language is still in the works and should surface for a committee vote, spokespeople say, but it has no bill number. Even if the measure passes this year, it needs a two-thirds vote in the Legislature before going to the voters in 2014.

Electing Judges, SB127/HB173: Strict readers of the constitution say the state should still subject judges to old-fashioned elections in the 2014 election, even if Legislative leaders ultimately decide to constitutionalize the current appointment-based practice. Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, says he thinks it has a 50/50 chance of passing: “I just feel like the members of the Judiciary Committee are warming up to the fact of adhering to the strict reading of the Constitution.” He’s agreed to take the measure up at the last committee meeting, likely in early April.

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