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Judicial Ethics Oversight Body Getting Facelift, Name Change

Tennessee lawmakers say they’re on the cusp of reforming how the state’s judges are policed and punished for lapses in moral or professional judgement. But many of the changes they want to impose amount to tinkering with procedures most taxpayers likely won’t notice.

It will still be controlled by judges — although broadened to include members retired from the bench. Complaints against judges will remain shrouded in secrecy, though in some cases lawmakers will be informed.

Lawmakers deny, however, that the changes on tap amount mostly to minor tinkering with procedures that in the end won’t depart too noticeably from the status quo.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, who has spearheaded the effort, said it “remains to be seen” if the reforms will go far enough. “In the end you have what you have. This is what we have for right now,” said the Mt. Juliet Republican.

“I know some people aren’t going to be happy with it but we’re going to have to wait and see how it works,” she said.

The upper chamber on Thursday voted 29-0 to break up the current judicial ethics panel, the Court of the Judiciary, in favor of building a new “Board of Judicial Conduct.”

Under SB2671 endorsed by the Senate, the COJ will disband June 30 then launch under the new name July 1. It would maintain its make-up of 10 judges to six non-judges, with new appointees coming from various judicial conferences, the governor and top legislative leaders. Now, most are appointed by the Supreme Court.

Some of the panelists may be retired judges, according to the legislation, to try putting professional distance between the ranks of sitting judges and their peers. That became a compromise after Beavers and a band of other lawmakers pushed hard to put more laypeople on the panel.

The new board would also be required to share more statistics about complaints and report to the House and Senate speakers any time a judge is reprimanded more than once. This was another key issue of consternation as several lawmakers argued during the committee process that the complaints should be open to public review.

“To come up with a bill that nobody’s completely happy with but everybody agrees with will be a sea change in how judges are disciplined, the information that’s released on (these) disciplines and complaints,” said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who crossed his fingers, adding, “I hope it will work.”

The one change all parties agreed with is taking power away from the board’s hired disciplinary counsel to decide which complaints lack merit. Under the new board, a three-person subcommittee with at least one non-judge would make yes-no decisions about whether an accusation against a judge deserves investigation.

The legislation now awaits a vote on the House floor.

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Judges, Lawmakers Strike Deal on Ethics Board

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to compromise legislation that would revamp the Court of the Judiciary, an ethical watchdog panel charged with probing and punishing judges accused of improper or unprofessional behavior.

Members of the committee found common ground on a list of provisions that will rename and reconstitute the makeup of the body with the intent of emboldening it to more aggressively investigate complaints against judges. The new board would also be required to report on its official inquiries to top House and Senate leaders.

“Nobody is completely happy, and nobody is completely miserable, and I hope that’s the situation we’ve arrived at,” Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, said just prior to the 8-0 judiciary committee vote on Senate Bill 2671.

The key change requires that the board hand the two General Assembly speakers a rundown of statistics on each judge reprimanded more than once. Information on “public reprimands” is already available, but “private reprimands” would be available only to the speakers.

“We’re very satisfied with that,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who worked with the Legislature to broker the deal.

“We think that’s a fair balance because the Legislature has an obligation under their impeachment power to have notice of what’s going on,” he said.

Concern that the Court of the Judiciary lacks independence, transparency and resolve has existed for some time. In September Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers hosted a series of hearings examining purported flaws within the Court of the Judiciary. The key phrase lawmakers like Beavers have used to sum up what they see as the core dysfunction within the Court of the Judiciary is “judges judging judges.”

The Mt. Juliet Republican, who has been the driving force behind judicial ethics reform, offered little in the way of comment to the committee as the sponsor gave her credit for pushing the issue, saying only, “I think you can say I’ve been a lightening rod, and I feel it.”

Senate Bill 2671 would set up a new panel to review ethics complaints against judges, called the Board of Judicial Conduct. It would still be controlled by judges.

Ten current or former judges, appointed by various councils of judges, would sit on the panel. In addition, the governor and chamber speakers would each pick an attorney and a layperson to join the board, for a total of six non-judges.

The bill also requires a subcommittee within the panel to decide whether to trash a complaint or use it to launch an investigation. That group would be required to have at least one non-judge. Currently, the board’s disciplinary counsel decides whether a complaint has merit, not its members.

The last time bill sponsor Sen. Mike Faulk ran a similar measure in the committee, it stalled on a 3-3-3 tie.

Judges and reformers in the Legislature have argued over the bill. The latest reincarnation results from a compromise by the judges. Prior to adding the component sending information to the speakers, the measure faced criticism in the House where some lawmakers argued the new board still lacks public accountability and gives judges too much power to police their own. The House Judiciary Committee still approved the bill, advancing it to another committee.

If the plan passes, it would dissolve the current Court of the Judiciary on June 30 and launch the Board of Judicial Conduct July 1.

Faulk, R-Church Hill, said he expects the full Senate to consider the bill Monday. The House measure faces a vote in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday before it can proceed to the full chamber.

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Liberty and Justice News

Beavers Considers ‘Starting From Scratch’ on Court of Judiciary

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.

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Press Releases

Committee Named to Investigate Complaints against TN Court of Judiciary

Press Release from House Speaker Beth Harwell & Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Aug. 19, 2011:

(August 19, 2011, NASHVILLE) – Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R—Blountville) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R—Nashville) today announced their respective appointments to the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on the Court of the Judiciary. The bipartisan, bicameral committee will be charged with examining issues surrounding the Court of the Judiciary—an entity created to investigate complaints against judges and administer punishment for infractions when warranted.

The joint committee will be led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R—Mt. Juliet) and House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson (R—Cleveland). In letters released today, Ramsey announced Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Sen. Ophelia Ford (D—Memphis), and Sen. Brian Kelsey (R—Germantown) will take the three Senate seats on the panel. Speaker Harwell notified Rep. Jim Coley (R—Bartlett), Rep. Eddie Bass (D—Prospect), and Rep. Rick Womick (R—Rockvale) of their appointment.

Lt. Governor Ramsey stated, “Tennessee deserves a quality judiciary. To achieve and sustain that quality we must maintain the highest standards not only for our judges but those charged with keeping them honest. I’m confident that the lawmakers we have appointed will work diligently to keep the Court of the Judiciary on mission, transparent and completely accountable.

Harwell agreed and added, “These are proven leaders on judicial reform who want to see our system perform efficiently and fairly. I look forward to hearing about their ideas for reforming the Court of the Judiciary and making sure our judges are conducting their courtrooms in fair and appropriate ways.”

“Having observed the Court of the Judiciary for many years, I am more convinced than ever of the need for serious and extensive reform,” stated Chairman Beavers. “Tennessee’s judicial branch is just as important as the legislative and the executive. Their decisions, interpretations and opinions have consequences that affect the lives of real people. In order to have a serious judiciary we must have a serious body overseeing them. The Court of the Judiciary must be beyond reproach. I look forward to leading the effort to make it so.”

Chairman Watson concluded, “I have constantly advocated for greater transparency and more careful oversight when it comes to the actions of the Court of the Judiciary. We have a fantastic legal system in Tennessee but we need to ensure the CoJ reviews complaints in a timely manner and acts swiftly when it is called for. Requiring greater clarity in the judicial system is a legitimate interest of the General Assembly and I am proud to help lead that effort.”

The Joint Committee on the Court of the Judiciary is scheduled to meet September 20th and 21st at 9am in Legislative Plaza.