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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

Judicial Ethics Panel Makeup Debated

Judges and lawmakers agree the state’s system for policing judges is flawed, but there’s so far little agreement as to how much sway judges themselves should have over that watchdog role.

Lawmakers are considering two major bills this year to recreate a panel responsible for disciplining judges who cross ethical lines. The major difference between the two proposals is just how many judges can sit on the new panel — and both sides are so far unwilling to budge.

“The appearance of judges appointing judges to hear complaints on judges doesn’t give them much credibility,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, a top critic of the current panel, the Court of the Judiciary.

Judges pitched their own reforms to a legislative committee in SB2671 Wednesday, suggesting the lawmakers replace the current ethics panel with a “Board of Judicial Conduct” that would shift responsibility for discarding complaints to board members rather than staff. The new board would also produce quarterly public reports instead of the current yearly statistics, establish a legislative liaison, and operate with a lower threshold for pursuing an investigation.

“Certainly there have been issues, and I think we’re trying to address those issues,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who is leading the charge for the Tennessee Judicial Conference’s ad hoc committee on Court of the Judiciary legislation. “We have some new membership. I think some of us are looking harder at cases and taking a little tougher line.”

The biggest problem Beavers has with the judicial branch’s proposal is the new board would retain too many judges, 10, plus six laypeople.

Beavers would prefer her own bill, which would dump the current board and build it anew, shrinking the board down to 12 people, with four as sitting judges. Her measure is on the Senate floor and is up for debate Feb. 9.

“I think you’d actually find that every single judge in the state of Tennessee, from the part-time municipal judge all the way up through every member of the Supreme Court, are actually united totally against that particular bill,” said Bivins, who also sits on the COJ.

The Senate Government Operations Committee advanced the judges’ measure with a “positive” recommendation on a 5-1-3 vote with little discussion. It now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it will likely face opposition from Beavers.

Beavers said she would also like the ethics panel to inform the House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairpeople when the board has received multiple complaints about the same judge.

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Press Releases

Bredesen Appoints Hurd Circuit Court Judge

Press Release from Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, March 4, 2010:

Rhynette Northcross Hurd To Fill Vacancy In The 30th Judicial District

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today appointed Rhynette Northcross Hurd of Collierville, Tenn., to the Tennessee Circuit Court for the 30th Judicial District, Division VIII. Hurd will fill a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge D’Army Bailey, who retired last year after 19 years on the bench. Hurd may stand for election in August to complete Bailey’s term, which expires in 2014.

“Rhynette Hurd has developed a wide range of skills in several substantive areas of the law, and I am confident she will carry out her duties on the circuit court in the same thoughtful and professional manner in which she has practiced law in Tennessee for nearly 20 years,” said Bredesen. “I appreciate her willingness to serve the state of Tennessee in this capacity, and I also want to commend her predecessor D’Army Bailey for his years of service on the bench.”

Prior to her appointment to the circuit court, Hurd spent much of her legal career as in-house counsel at various corporations including Sedwick Claims Management Services, Inc., International Paper, and Accredo Health, Inc. She has also served several years as an adjunct professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law and as an assistant to the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners. From 2000 to 2008, she served as a member of the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees.

“I am committed to public service and to improving the quality of life for Tennesseans,” Hurd said. “I have a deep respect for the law and believe in the ability of the judicial process to achieve fair resolution of disputes. I believe an impartial judge is essential to that end, and I know of no greater honor than to serve my state and my profession in this capacity. I thank Governor Bredesen for giving me this opportunity.”

Hurd obtained a bachelor’s degree in English Composition from Mount Holyoke College, a M.A.T. in African and African-American Literature and Sociology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a Ph.D. in English Education from Vanderbilt University, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Memphis. She is currently a member of the Association of Corporate Counsel and Parkway Gardens Presbyterian Church. She is married to Dr. William C. Hurd and has two sons.