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Legislation Requiring Drug Testing of Judges Proposed

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; November 15, 2013:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — State Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Representative Ryan Haynes (R-Knoxville) said today they will introduce legislation which calls for drug testing all Tennessee judges. McNally made the announcement after meeting yesterday with Knox County Prosecutor Leland Price and the families of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom. Christian and Newsom were raped, tortured and murdered by Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins, George Thomas and Vanessa Coleman seven years ago.

“For a family to have to go through one trial where it involves the torturous murder of their loved one is far too painful for anyone to endure,” said Senator McNally. “But, to have to go through two trials is inconceivable and inexcusable. This legislation addresses this so that no one will have to endure this kind of lengthy and excruciatingly painful court process again due to drug abuse by a judge.”

The families of Newsome and Christian had to endure two painful trials as a result of the misconduct of Judge Richard Baumgartner, who pleaded guilty to illegally taking narcotics during the first trial of the convicted murderers in which he presided. As a result of Baumgartner’s plea, the four defendants who had previously been found guilty, were retried and convicted again.

“I think it’s important that our citizens have confidence in our justice system,” said Representative Haynes. “It is pretty clear after what these two families have gone through that there are issues that need to be addressed.”

McNally said he also plans to introduce legislation which provides for harsher punishment for ethical misconduct by officers of the court that lie about crime victims in order to advance their case.

“Attorney are officers of the court and should not be allowed to lie in order to advance their case at the expense of the victim,” added McNally. “To do so amounts to a second crime against the victims and their families and should be treated as such.”

McNally said both pieces of legislation are still in the drafting stages.

“I am appalled at what these victims and their families endured during these trials,” added McNally. “We must make sure this never happens again.”

McNally is the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and represents Senate District 5 in the Tennessee State Senate, which encompasses Anderson and Loudon Counties and portions of Knox County. Haynes is Chairman of the State Government Committee and represents portions of Knox County in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

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Lawmakers Not Soon Likely to Open TBI Files

State legislators have expressed support for open Tennessee Bureau of Investigation files in theory, but seem less inclined to drum up an effort toward that end in the near future.

While investigative agencies in some other states allow such files to be opened, TBI case files are exempt from Tennessee’s Public Records Act. TNReport interviewed several lawmakers on the matter Tuesday as part of our effort to raise awareness for Sunshine Week.

The most recent source of focus on the issue is the case of former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The fallout from revelations about the former judge’s drug and alcohol addiction, and his efforts to satisfy those vices while on the bench, led to his disbarment. One of the state’s most infamous cases – that of the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23 – is likely to be retried. More retrials could follow.

Throughout the saga, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorial board has repeatedly called for increased transparency, including the opening of TBI files in the Baumgartner case and in general.

The Knox County Commission is considering a resolution — sponsored by its chairman, Mike Hammond — that would ask the Legislature or the governor to take steps to open TBI’s full Baumgartner investigation file to public review. On Feb. 27 Hammond postponed a vote on the resolution for 30 days to see if the judge handling the file would order it be made public.

Special Judge Jon Blackwood said last week that he had “no authority whatsoever” to release what is believed to be over 1,000 pages of the TBI’s Baumgartner case file. Blackwood did release 155 pages of the file in December, but said Friday that if the rest of the file is to be released, the “ball is in the state legislature’s court.”

But legislators aren’t particularly eager to touch the issue, either.

“The push has been there, but you have a judge that has ruled, ‘No, we’re not going to release it,’ and so far, the way our government is set up, when a judge declares something it’s a little hard to overrule that,” said Knoxville Republican Rep. Bill Dunn.

In the case of the Baumgartner file, Dunn said he does favor bringing the entire file to light, eventually.

“Sometimes you get into legal questions, which is beyond my expertise,” he said. “But as a citizen and someone who’s going to be paying all those extra taxes for what happened because of what Judge Baumgartner did, it seems it needs to be released, at least as much as can be released, and then over time we need to see 100 percent of it.”

Aside from the Christian/Newsom case, it’s unclear how many challenges and retrials will result from the legal tree poisoned by Baumgartner’s misdeeds, the News-Sentinel reported last month.

(According to prosecutors) Baumgartner presided over 54 trials during the three years a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe showed he was committing crimes related to prescription drug abuse. In that same time period, he handled thousands of pleas, sentencings and probation violation hearings.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he’s “absolutely” in favor of open TBI files and has indeed called for the release of one with his name on it.

Last June, the TBI launched an investigation to determine if Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford, R-Jonesborough, had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their region of the state. No evidence of wrongdoing was found, and no charges were filed.

In January, Shipley told TNReport that he planned to push for a House committee to subpoena the case file. He has not followed through on that pledge.

Now, he said, his duties in the legislature come first, but at some point he will return to the issue of the file, which he said contains the identity of someone who committed a felony by filing a false report.

Of the Baumgartner case, Shipley said he favors openness as a means for holding all public officials to an equal level of accountability.

“Admittedly, I am not as familiar with [the Baumgartner case] as I am this other one. I think if the legislature asks for something, they need to be forthcoming,” he said. “We have detected missteps by the judiciary, we have detected and discovered missteps by the district attorneys and so on and so forth. And they need to be just as accountable to the people as we are.”

Gov. Bill Haslam, formerly the mayor of Knoxville before assuming Tennessee’s highest elected office, told reporters Monday that he didn’t know enough about the details of the Baumgartner case to have an “educated opinion,” and that his feelings on increased transparency with regards to TBI files are balanced by the interests of law enforcement.

“My sense is, whenever there’s information that would be helpful to the public, if there’s not a real reason not to, that should be open,” he said. “But I also realize there’s issues and times with law enforcement when there are really good reasons to keep that information until the whole legal process is worked through.”

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Press Releases

Knox County DA Letter Opposing Public Release of ex-Judge Baumgartner TBI File

Letter dated Feb. 27, 2012, from Knox County District Attorney General Randall E. Nichols to Knox County Commission Chairman Mike Hammond:

The Honorable Mike Hammond
Chairman, Knox County Commission
City­ County Building
Knoxville, TN 37902

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I read in the newspaper that Commission was considering a resolution regarding unsealing the investigative report on former Judge Richard Baumgartner. We are presently in Court arguing the validity of judgments rendered by said Judge and we are appealing the rulings heretofore made by the Courts. Judge Blackwood has sealed all but approximately 155 pages of the voluminous report and absent intercession by the Appellate Court, he is the only one who can unseal it. We are not in disagreement that the public should be allowed to know the file contents and we may very well move to unseal. Those decisions should be make known in written pleadings before the Court and we are striving to get a hearing to lítigate these issues.

The Commission resolution does not aid our efforts for a full and complete hearing on these most important issues and I am concerned with setting such a precedent when in fact the secrecy of TBI is a worthwhile tool in investigations involving allegations of public corruption.

Thank you for your consideration, and if you Wish, I will be pleased to keep you and Commission advised of the status of this critical litigation.

Sincerely,
Randall E. Nichols
District Attorney General
6th Judicial District

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Liberty and Justice NewsTracker

Beavers Silent on Newest Plan to Police Judges

After years of discussion and several months of focused haggling over details, some Tennessee lawmakers say they’re optimistic a deal is within reach to overhaul the panel charged with punishing unethical judges.

But it’s unclear if Sen. Mae Beavers — who has led the charge to bring more accountability to the Court of the Judiciary and rein in wayward judges — is on board.

“Nobody, I think, is just elated with the version,” said Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah, who is sponsoring the reform in the House of Representatives. “I don’t think everybody got everything that they wanted on either side of the issue, but I think it’s a reasonable compromise.”

Beavers, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to comment about the compromise Tuesday.

The new language of HB2935 would require that 10 of 16 members of the board be sitting or retired judges. Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican, has pushed for more laypeople. The new plan would also require the board report statistics about judicial ethical blunders on a monthly and quarterly basis.

The legislation comes as Knox County faces a seemingly interminable tide of expensive and traumatic legal aftershocks resulting from ex-judge Richard Baumgartner’s unscrupulous activities while serving on the bench.

Baumgartner illegally obtained and abused prescription drugs for years in the Knoxville criminal court over which he presided before stepping down last winter. In March he pleaded guilty to a single count of official misconduct. As part of a judicial diversion agreement, Baumgartner was allowed to voluntarily resign from office and keep his government pension.

Convictions in numerous high-profile murders, sexual assaults and other violent criminal cases are in jeopardy as a result both of Baumgartner’s actions and the failure of law enforcement officials, court employees and other judges around him to report instances of his erratic, unstable, legally suspect and otherwise inappropriate behavior when they witnessed it.

“The unfortunate thing with Judge Baumgartner is that there will be a ripple effect throughout the entire Tennessee criminal justice system for years, if not decades,” Gregory Isaacs, a prominent Knoxville criminal defense attorney, told TNReport recently.

“The problem is there are going to be consequences — there are going to be decisions made that hurt victims,” added Isaacs, who is appealing a Baumgartner-court conviction of a man sentenced to 38 years in prison for raping his stepdaughter. “But unfortunately Judge Baumgartner has put everyone in the position of having to make those tough decisions.”

The Baumgartner episode is one of several that has raised questions among lawmakers and critics in the public about the effectiveness of Tennessee’s system for detecting and punishing judges who act in a fashion dishonorable or unfitting to their office.

Dennis said he’s confident, though, that the reform proposal he’s backing “will eliminate the appearance of impropriety that some folks perceived with our current Court of the Judiciary.” A practicing attorney and secretary of the House Judiciary Committee, Dennis added that he wants to see “a better functioning body to supervise and investigate” accusations of professional misconduct against judges.

Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, said the latest bill, which is set for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee next week, will give people facing judges in court the best recourse to deal with unethical behavior.

“If they have a complaint of judicial ethics … then they will have an avenue that should be more transparent, more open, with people who are amenable to listening to the problem and working to a solution,” said Rich. “I think this will expose bad judges, but it will not punish good judges.”

Rich pulled from consideration the plan backed by Beavers Tuesday, SB1198, which called for a panel controlled by non-judges, including retirees from the judicial system, law enforcement and laypeople.

Mark Engler contributed to this article.

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Featured Liberty and Justice

Senate: No Judicial Diversion for Public Servants

Legislators say they want to make sure their own kind get more than a slap on the wrist if they’re caught breaking the law and abusing the public trust.

The legislation comes almost a year after Richard Baumgartner, a former criminal court judge in Knoxville, pleaded guilty to official misconduct for illegally using prescription painkillers he acquired from drug offenders who’d appeared in his court. Baumgartner was granted diversion, which allowed him to avoid serving jail time.

“I think that people who hold public office ought to be held to a higher standard,” said Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, who is sponsoring the bill.

Yager told TNReport the Baumgartner scandal “was certainly one of several” involving East Tennessee public officials that prompted him to sponsor the legislation — although he declined to get specific.

“That’s not to say that 99 percent of the state and local officials in this state aren’t hardworking, conscientious and honest, but it’s that less than one percent who commit malfeasance in their office give everybody else a bad name,” Yager said.

The measure would add to the list of crimes not eligible for diversion “any offense committed by any elected or appointed person in the executive, legislative or judicial branch of the state or any political division of the state, which offense was committed in the person’s official capacity or involved the duties of the person’s office.”

Even though nobody voted against the bill, not everybody was for it. Three senators abstained from voting on SB2566: Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, and Joe Haynes, D-Nashville.

“If you’re going to take off diversion for that crime, we need to consider a lot of other crimes,” Haynes told reporters after speaking out against the bill on the Senate floor. “Not that people who do that shouldn’t be punished. Sure they should. But diversion shouldn’t be removed for that crime any more than it should be removed… for embezzlers or any other serious crime.”

Baumgartner pleaded guilty to one felony count of official misconduct and was granted two years of parole instead of a prison sentence for the conviction. Defense lawyers in numerous cases over which Baumgartner presided either have or are considering asking for retrials because Judge Baumgartner was likely impaired on the bench during court proceedings.

If he avoids further brushes with the law, Baumgartner’s record will be wiped clean after two years due to the current diversion law.

In Tennessee, diversion is applicable in certain cases involving a first-time offender. The second chance is granted in cases where the defendant has never been granted pretrial or judicial diversion, has not been convicted for a felony, or a Class A or B misdemeanor. Diversion is available if the crime at hand is not a Class A or B felony, DUI,  misdemeanor sex offense or conspiracy, attempt, or solicitation of certain sex offenses.

The companion House measure, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, has yet to move in a House Judiciary subcommittee this year, but is scheduled for a hearing Thursday.

Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Shipley Wants TBI to Release Records in Probe of Lawmakers

State Rep. Tony Shipley said he plans to push for a House committee to subpoena the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s files in the recently concluded inquiry into legislative actions by Shipley and Rep. Dale Ford.

Shipley and Ford were subjects of a TBI probe into whether they had exerted improper influence over a state nursing board that had disciplined three nurses from their East Tennessee area. This week Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson announced that he had found no evidence of any crime and would not pursue charges against the two lawmakers.

Shipley, R-Kingsport, said he would use the House Government Operations Committee, on which he serves as secretary, to seek the files. He would need the support of a majority of the members, and Shipley said he would try to enlist one of them to introduce the matter.

But lawyers for the committee cast doubt on the likelihood of getting the records. Legislative subpoenas are rare, they said, and with TBI pushback the matter could end up in court before any documents were released.

TBI files are among the most secretive documents in Tennessee.

They are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, a fact which has drawn renewed attention of late, especially with regards to the TBI’s investigation of Richard Baumgartner, a disgraced and disbarred Knox County Criminal Court judge who was abusing drugs and engaging in other illegal activity while presiding over cases.

In the wake of TBI revelations that Knox County court employees and other judges, as well as prosecutors in the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, may have witnessed Judge Baumgartner engaging in ethically suspect or illegal behavior and did nothing about it, the Knoxville News Sentinel editorialized in favor of the public gaining access to TBI files once an investigation is wrapped up.

“Lawmakers should show courage…and side with the public and its right to know about closed police investigations by eliminating TBI’s exemption from the Public Records Act,” the News Sentinel editors wrote last month.

However,  state law already gives committees from either chamber of the General Assembly the power to subpoena all government records. According to state law, “investigative records of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation shall be open to inspection by elected members of the general assembly if such inspection is directed by a duly adopted resolution of either house or of a standing or joint committee of either house.”

Once a committee obtained the files, Shipley said it would be his intention to make them open to the public.

“There’s nothing I do here that’s not completely aboveboard or open to the public,” Shipley said. “If I bring it to committee, at that point, I don’t have to call for anything. (It’s) wide open.”

Ford, R-Jonesborough, said he doesn’t care who sees the file, either.

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, why should you care if everything’s made public,” he said. “I couldn’t care less. But it better be the truth, I can tell you that.”

Shipley has turned his ire on Johnson, who said the lawmakers used “particularly heavy-handed” political pressure.

“I’m a huge supporter of the TBI. I’m a huge supporter of district attorneys. I’m a complete law and order kind of guy,” Shipley said. “But even in those organizations you can have jerks that get in there and mess with the constitution because they think they can. And they can’t.”

The TBI launched the investigation last June to determine if the two legislators and employees of the state’s Health Department had committed any crimes, including official misconduct and false reporting, and whether the lawmakers had improperly pressured the Nursing Board to reconsider its decision to discipline three nurse practitioners.

The nurses had been accused of over-prescribing medication at the Appalachian Medical Center in Johnson City, which has since been closed. Shipley and Ford through legislation attempted to shake up the nursing board and its oversight, and raised the specter of doing away with the board altogether. Ford had family ties to an employee and patient at the center.

The board eventually reversed its action against the nurses, though a TBI investigation into their actions remains open.

On Monday, Johnson announced that the state would not prosecute the two legislators. In a statement, he called the case one of “political hardball, but not political corruption.”

Shipley characterized the district attorney’s actions and criticism as a breach of the separation of powers, and the handling of the nurses’ case an “abortion of justice.”

“It is completely inappropriate for them to have stuck their hands into the legislative box,” Shipley said. “The DA made a statement: No criminality found. He should have stopped right there.

“His next comment was totally inappropriate: ‘Heavy-handed politics.’ Well, what was heavy-handed was the TBI’s DA-directed investigation that was blown from Mountain City to Memphis. That was heavy-handed.”

Shipley said he may initiate a legislative probe into where the allegations came from and whether charges could be filed against the individuals responsible for them.

He said the charges of official misconduct should have been seen as baseless from the beginning, because the three criteria for such a charge were impossible in his case. He said there couldn’t have been money or sex exchanged for a vote, because no vote was taken, and that no one’s employment could have been threatened, because he doesn’t have the power to fire anyone on the Nursing Board.

Gov. Bill Haslam recently announced he wants a review of Tennessee’s 22 state boards and commissions. In a statement outlining his 2012 legislative agenda released this week, Haslam expressed his desire to “eliminate duplicative functions and provide more accountability and oversight of these agencies.”

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Disorder in the Court

As Knox County prosecutors gird themselves for a potential onslaught of appeals in convictions they obtained before a disgraced and now disbarred criminal court judge, political fallout at the state level is just beginning.

State lawmakers who chair the House and Senate judiciary committees say the saga of Judge Richard Baumgartner’s ignominious descent into drug addiction, criminality and professional impropriety will almost certainly strengthen calls for sweeping judicial ethics reform in Tennessee.

“Surely the people that worked around him knew that he was on drugs,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers. “So what’s their obligation to report it? We’ve really got to look at our system and what’s going on.”

Added House Judiciary Chairman Eric Watson, “Something’s going to have to be done.”

On Dec. 1, a judge ordered retrials for all four defendants convicted in the kidnapping, rape and torture slayings of Channon Christian, 21, and Christopher Newsom, 23.

The 2007 crimes were shocking for their extraordinary violence and sexual brutality. The fact that the defendants were black and the victims white sparked racial tensions in the community. Three men and one woman were tried separately before Judge Baumgartner for their roles in the crimes. One of the men convicted in the case was sentenced to die, and the others received prison terms ranging from 53 years to life without parole. A fourth man was convicted in federal court of aiding one of the perpetrators and sentenced to 22 years.

But retrials were ordered for all the state-court convicted defendants after a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into Judge Baumgartner’s activities revealed that he had, over the course of several years, been illegally buying and abusing prescription painkillers in his chambers. The investigation revealed Judge Baumgartner was likely under the influence of drugs when he presided over the Christian/Newsom trials, and many other cases.

Baumgartner was one of the founders of the Knox County Drug Court program. First appointed to the bench by Gov. Ned McWherter in 1992, Baumgartner presided over the high-profile murder trials of Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey and Raynella Dossett Leath.

The state’s legal apparatus for detecting and dealing with unethical judges, the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary, took no action against Judge Baumgartner until after he pleaded guilty on March 10 to one count of “official misconduct,” a Class E felony. As part of the plea agreement offered by Al Schmutzer, Jr., a former Cocke County district attorney who served as a special prosecutor, Baumgartner agreed to resign his post as a Knox County Criminal Court judge.

On March 29, Baumgartner was placed on “interim suspension” by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary.

That the Court of the Judiciary didn’t catch wind earlier of the ongoing judicial meltdown in Tennessee’s third most populace county is further evidence all is not well in the state court system, suggested Beavers. The Court of the Judiciary is scheduled to “sunset” as of July 1, unless the Tennessee General Assembly passes legislation that says otherwise.

In the event that the COJ is disbanded — an increasingly likely outcome, said Beavers — responsibility for investigating and disciplining judges would revert to the Legislature.

Other lawmakers are taking issue with Baumgartner’s ability to keep his taxpayer-funded pension. In spite of laws passed in the wake of the Tennessee Waltz scandal requiring public officials to forfeit that income in the event of an office-related conviction, because Baumgartner was granted judicial diversion there won’t likely be a conviction entered into the record to trigger the pension revocation — provided he stays out of further trouble for the next two years.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally said he is drafting legislation requiring government officials to surrender their pensions even if granted diversion for a felony charge, an issue Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday is “worthy of discussion.”

McNally is also asking U.S. Attorney William C. Killian to investigate whether there are federal charges that could be brought against Baumgartner — which could also lead to him losing his pension. McNally’s also asking the Tennessee State Comptroller to investigate payments the judge authorized to defense attorneys in the Christian/Newsom murder trials.

News outlets in Knoxville reported last week that anywhere between dozens and thousands of cases that went through Judge Baumgartner’s courtroom in the past several years could be subject to review.

Attorney General Robert Cooper confirmed to TNReport that his office is aiding the Knox County District Attorney’s Office to try to get a handle and read on the magnitude of the legal disaster they’re facing.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported last week that Judge Baumgartner disposed 3,341 cases in the timeframe in which he is suspected to have been “doctor-shopping” and cavorting with known felons, including a drug dealer convicted in his court.

WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported that the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office believes that “less than 40” retrials are likely.

Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood earlier this month ordered the release of 155 pages of TBI interview summaries and transcripts that formed the basis of his decision to order retrials in the Christian/Newsom case.

Those TBI files reveal that many court employees and lawyers, including prosecutors with the District Attorney’s Office and a sitting judge, knew for a long time something was amiss with Judge Baumgartner, but apparently took no steps to have him officially investigated or removed from the bench.

Judge Baumgartner’s administrative assistant, Jennifer Judy, told the TBI it was widely known around the courthouse that Baumgartner was often mentally incapable of presiding over cases.

“Judy stated on some days he was so impaired that his court clerk or the District Attorney’s office would reset matters scheduled for that day,” according to one TBI interview report.

The TBI report further stated:

Judy said sometimes Judge Baumgartner would ‘buck up’ if he thought he was fine and that she had threatened him before that if he went into the courtroom impaired, she was not going in with him and be subjected to the ridicule from others in the court. She stated that she felt that his peers, other lawyers, including the District Attorney’s office, knew what was going on but they did not confront him about his issues because he was ‘the Judge.’

Within the TBI files is also a summary of interviews conducted with Assistant District Attorneys Leland Price and TaKisha Fitzgerald, lead prosecutors in the case against Vanessa Coleman, the female defendant in the Christian/Newsom murders.

Price and Fitzgerald were traveling together back to Knoxville from Nashville after a court proceeding in the spring of 2010 when they observed Judge Baumgartner in a vehicle ahead of them. According to the TBI’s interview with Price:

Price stated that the Judge was weaving all over the road and driving very erratic to the point of almost causing an accident. Price stated they tried to call him on his cell phone but he would not answer. He said they contacted Jennifer Judy who then called [Baumgartner] and asked him to pull over at the next exit. Price said he believed that [Baungartner] did comply with the request, but [Price] and [Assistant DA Fitzgerald] did not stop at the exit.

Fitzgerald’s account of the incident along I-40, which occurred near Cookeville, is consistent with what Price told the TBI. “[Fitzgerald] stated that [Baumgartner] was all over the road and was a danger to other drivers,” according to the TBI report, written by Darren B. DeArmond.

The TBI file indicates Judge Baumgartner later summoned the two Knox County DA’s assistants into his office and admitted they’d witnessed him driving while impaired:

[Price] advised that on Monday, April 12, 2010, [Baumgartner] called him and ADA Fitzgerald into his chambers and discussed the events of the previous Friday. [Baumgartner] told them he was having some back problems and had taken some medication and should not have been driving.

Price also told the TBI that during courtroom preparations for jury selection in the Coleman trial, Judge Baumgartner seemed “not right,” possibly mentally impaired or “under the influence,” according to DeArmond’s report.

“[Price] said the Judge’s speech was slurred and he seemed incoherent at times and was having problems putting sentences together,” wrote DeArmond, who conducted his interview with the prosecutors on Feb. 3.

“Price stated that he was aware of times when trials have been reset in Division I Court when Judge Baumgartner was not fit to be on the bench,” the TBI report states.

Nevertheless, the Coleman case went forward with Judge Baumgartner presiding. Coleman was ultimately convicted of helping facilitate the rape, torture and murder of Channon Christian. In July 2010 she was sentenced to 53 years in prison.

No date has been set for her retrial.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, John Gill, special counsel and chief assistant to Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols, defended prosecutors’ handling of the Judge Baumgartner affair.

“We were aware that he had some health problems, but not that he was abusing drugs or addicted to drugs at all,” Gill told TNReport.

The TBI began investigating Judge Baumgartner in the fall of 2010, after a Knoxville woman reported to local police that her ex-husband had burglarized her home — and that if law enforcement authorities investigated him they’d find he was dealing drugs to a local judge. The incident was reported to the TBI by Jennifer Welch, also a prosecutor with the Knox County District Attorney’s Office.

Chris Craft, who presides over the Court of the Judiciary, told TNReport that the Judge Baumgartner situation was in no way mishandled by the COJ — and that the case in fact ought to demonstrate how important the COJ is to the justice system in Tennessee.

“As far as what we’re doing, we need to keep doing what we’re doing, and we’re doing a good job,” he said.

Craft said that in the case of Judge Baumgartner, the Court of the Judiciary “did everything they were supposed to do.”

“I can think of absolutely nothing we failed to do in this case,” he said.

When the COJ was made aware of the nature of Judge Baumgartner’s behavior — namely, after Baumgartner accepted the plea bargain last March — it acted, said Craft.

Craft would neither confirm nor deny whether the COJ received any complaints against Baumgartner prior to March 10 because that information would only be made public if the COJ filed charges or issued a public reprimand, which it did not.

Craft noted, though, that he’s heard of no one who has come forward publicly and said they filed a complaint against Baumgartner with the COJ that the COJ failed to investigate.

In a letter dated Dec. 6, Senate Finance Committee Chairman McNally requested the COJ release “copies of any complaints filed against Judge Richard Baumgartner since 2007 related to drug or alcohol abuse.” McNally said Monday he’s yet to receive a response.

Judge Craft added that all lawyers — prosecutors, defense attorneys and other judges alike — have an “absolute duty” under the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Rules of Professional Conduct to report judicial misbehavior or misconduct whenever they suspect or witness it.

“At the Court of the Judiciary, we understand that many attorneys are hesitant to file a written complaint on a judge, so we will take anonymous complaints from attorneys over the phone if we need to in order to get enough information to investigate,” Craft wrote in an email to TNReport. “We can then talk to others who observe the judge and courtroom daily to make sure nothing is happening that is impairing the judge’s performance. There may be an entirely innocent reason the judge is acting differently, such as advancing age, back pain, illness or lack of sleep due to a family illness or other issue, but we still need to know, if it is in fact affecting that judge’s performance.”

Baumgartner could not be reached for comment on this article.

In a story that aired on Knoxville station WBIR-TV back in August, the former judge can be seen addressing members of the Knoxville Metropolitan Drug Commission in a taped video presentation. In it Baumgartner touches on some of the circumstances surrounding his admitted addiction to pain pills.

“I kind of wish that people had been tougher on me and said, ‘What’s going on here?’,” Baumgartner said. “Because I think if more people had done that, I might have gotten the message sooner.”

Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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