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.”
“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.