Posts

Courts Issue Reprimand Against Dickson Co. Judge

Statement from Court of the Judiciary; Jan. 30, 2012:

The Court of the Judiciary has issued a public reprimand against Dickson County Juvenile Court Judge A. Andrew Jackson for failing to appoint counsel in two cases.

The public reprimand is attached and can also be found on our website here: http://www.tncourts.gov/news/2012/01/30/court-judiciary-issues-public-reprimand-against-judge-andrew-jackson

Hearings on Court of Judiciary Underway

Almost a dozen witnesses both challenged and defended the integrity of the state’s processes for investigating ethical complaints against Tennessee judges during a legislative hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Questions surrounding the Court of the Judiciary’s effectiveness have centered on whether it perfunctorily dismisses too many complaints against judges — and whether the Court, made up primarily of judges appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, is more concerned with protecting members of the judiciary than in rooting out and punishing judicial misconduct.

“I would think that (the Court of the Judiciary) would want to do something to remedy that perception by the pubic — that something is being swept under the carpet,” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, co-chair of the ad hoc committee examining the Court’s activities.

Several lawmakers on the joint House-Senate committee expressed their desire to make disciplinary complaint proceedings against judges more transparent to the public. Also discussed was the possibility of adding statutory teeth to requirements that judges acknowledge potential conflicts of interest that might compromise their impartiality. Broadening the make-up of the judicial-ethics investigation panel to include people who are not directly associated with or working in the legal profession was suggested as well.

The Court of the Judiciary’s presiding judge, Chris Craft, said he’s open to considering a range of possible reform recommendations for improving the public’s confidence in the Tennessee judiciary. But he cautioned against any radical departures from the established arrangements and existing processes without thorough exploration of potential ramifications.

Craft said he opposes removing judges entirely from the Court of the Judiciary and replacing them with “all laypersons, as some bill suggested last year.”

“But as far as who selects the judges, we don’t really care as long as we know that they’re ethical judges selected to do the work,” Craft said.

The hearing is scheduled to resume Wednesday at 1 p.m. No substantive action on legislation can occur until the General Assembly convenes for its regular session in January.

Haslam Undecided Whether Court of Judiciary Needs Reform

A panel of state lawmakers is expected to examine the Court of the Judiciary next week. But Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he’s as yet unsure whether he supports altering the make-up of the appointed panel charged with investigating ethical complaints against Tennessee judges.

The governor told reporters following the swearing in of a criminal appeals court judge in Williamson County Friday that the state’s legislative and judicial branches could both benefit from more and better communication with one another.

“I know there’s a lot of questions in the Legislature about, is it too much of judges reviewing judges reviewing judges. I’ll spend a little bit more time on that before I really have an opinion on that,” Haslam said after the oath was administered to Judge Jeffrey Bivins.

“There are some people in the Legislature that feel like, are we getting adequate oversight? And the judiciary is like, I don’t think every time there’s a complaint there needs to be a public hearing because there’s so many complaints along the way,” Haslam continued. “I actually think it’s one of those that maybe… a little bit more dialogue might help the process on both sides.”

Lawmakers plan to meet Tuesday to examine the Court of the Judiciary which investigates allegations of ethical misconduct among judges.

Reports surfaced in 2009 that the board largely dismissed complaints against judges and kept most disciplinary actions secret, although court officials say that practice is generally necessary to protect judges against unfounded accusations.

Sen. Mae Beavers, a long-time advocate of reorganizing the way the Court works and co-chairwoman of the ad hoc committee reviewing the Court of the Judiciary, said she is mulling the idea of requiring that more laypersons be appointed to the board now full of judges and attorneys.

She is also a fan of electing judges, another contentious issue that promises to surface during next year’s legislative session. Judges are currently appointed in Tennessee by the governor based on a list of recommended candidates.

“There’s been some controversy around the whole judicial selection process,” Haslam said before swearing in Bivins. “From where I sit, I have nothing but good things to say about the judicial selection committee and the process. Every time, I’ve had the good problem having to choose between good men and women to fill a spot. It’s an honor to get to do that.”

The Tennessee Bar Association, like Haslam, is happy with the current set-up for electing judges, said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the TBA. He plans on attending next week’s hearing, but says the current make-up of the Court of the Judiciary works.

“I think you have to be careful about calling change reform,” he said. “There’s a good balance at present. There are judges and lawyers who understand the judicial process and the limits and constraints that the judges operate under.”

Judicial Ethics Panel in Spotlight

Tennessee lawmakers are meeting next week to discuss reforming the state panel that polices judges, which is stacked with lawyers and judges and has been criticized as secretive and overly lenient.

“I think there’s something that just doesn’t sound right about the judiciary appointing a judiciary to oversee the judiciary,” Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said. Beavers, who used to be a court reporter, chairs the Judiciary Committee and the ad-hoc committee looking into the Court of the Judiciary.

For the past three years Beavers has been trying to increase outside oversight of the Court. She says she’d like to see “more everyday folks” appointed to the panel that investigates charges of judicial misbehavior.

The Court is composed of 10 judges appointed by the Supreme Court, three attorneys named by the Tennessee Bar Association and one member each chosen by the governor and the House and Senate speakers.

The Court of the Judiciary’s newly elected presiding judge says he’s open to anything the Legislature wants to do. But members outside the legal system will require training on the intricacies of the state’s ethics laws, Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said.

“It’s kind of hard for laypersons to understand the code of judicial conduct,” said Craft.

In 2009, reports surfaced that only a sliver of complaints to the Court alleging judicial misconduct resulted in disciplinary action, with most of the punishment records shielded from public inspection.

Officials within the Court of the Judiciary stress the importance of keeping unfounded allegations secret to protect judges’ credibility and contended that most of the allegations they receive have nothing to do with ethics issues, anyway.

“I think people wonder why we have 290 complaints and 90 percent of them are dismissed. They wonder what’s going on,” Craft said. “We’re an organization that handles ethical complaints against judges. We don’t handle legal complaints. Those are called appeals.”

Last fall, Beavers headed a study committee examining the practices of the Court. Months later, Beavers suggested the Legislature shrink the Court of the Judiciary to 12 appointees, all of whom would be chosen by the House and Senate speakers. On the last day of the legislative session the bill was postponed until 2012.

The former head of the Court of the Judiciary says the face-off is more of a power struggle between the judicial and legislative branches of government, according to the City Paper.

“It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain control over a separate branch of government,” said Steve Daniel, a retired judge who presided over the Court of the Judiciary from 1999 to 2004 and served as chief disciplinary counsel from 2007-10. “It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain power over who sits on the court. They want to try to influence the judiciary, to intimidate judges, to make them more palatable to their particular agenda.”

Beavers disagrees.

“I just resent the fact that some people say it’s a power struggle, because it’s not that at all,” she said. “It’s part of our job.”

Craft, who was elected to lead the Court of the Judiciary less than a month ago, says he doesn’t see the hearings as a political power grab or a legislative attempt to menace the judiciary, either.

“We’re all supposed to balance each other out and work together,” Craft said. “We’re accountable to them just as the laws they pass are accountable to the Constitution.”

The committee will meet in Legislative Plaza on Tuesday, Sept. 20, and carry over into Wednesday, Sept. 21, if needed.

The Administrative Office of the Courts expects to release a report on the history of the Court of the Judiciary before next week’s meeting, a courts spokeswoman said.

Court of Judiciary Elects New Leadership, Promises Transparency

Press Release by Tennessee State Courts; August 24, 2011:

Nashville, Tenn. – Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft was today elected presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary, the body that handles complaints against judges and imposes sanctions for judicial misconduct.  Craft replaces Judge Don Ash, who served as presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary for the past four years.

“I appreciate the confidence the members of the Court of the Judiciary has shown in me by selecting me as their Presiding Judge,” Craft said. “I also want to thank Judge Ash for his incredible dedication to the Court of the Judiciary and commend him for his work as presiding judge during the past four years.”

“I look forward to working with the Court of the Judiciary and members of the legislature as we continue the very important task of safeguarding the ethics of the Judicial Branch of government and ensuring that all Tennesseans have ethical, fair and impartial judges,” Craft said.

Craft has served as criminal court judge in the 30th Judicial District since 1994. Prior to his appointment to the bench, Craft served as an assistant district attorney for 12 years, the last three of which he served as senior trial prosecutor in the major violations unit. Since 2001, Craft has served as an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis School of law. Craft is vice president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and Dean of the Judicial Academy.

The Court of the Judiciary also elected Judge Jean Stanley as presiding judge pro tem, who will act as presiding judge in cases where the presiding judge must recuse himself. Since 1992, Stanley has served as circuit court judge in the 1st Judicial District, which includes Carter, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington counties.

During its meeting, the Court of the Judiciary also released its annual report, which provides statistical data and information about the Court’s efforts during the past fiscal year. During the 2010-2011 Fiscal Year, nine complaints resulted in a public reprimand.

In an effort to improve transparency, this year’s annual report offers greater detail about the Court of Judiciary’s efforts, including more comprehensive breakdown of the disposition of cases, a year-by-year comparison of statistical information and a summary about the types of conduct that resulted in private discipline.

“We believe Tennesseans deserve greater transparency about our efforts to investigate complaints against judges and this new annual report format serves as our first step in that direction,” Craft said.

The Court of the Judiciary’s 2010-2011 annual report, along with reports from the past six years, may be downloaded online at http://www.tncourts.gov/court-judiciary.

Download the annual report here: http://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/court_of_judiciary_2010-20011_annual_report.pdf