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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.