Commentary says TN judiciary uses ‘the black wall’ to protect itself

Gail Kerr: Special court aims to protect, not discipline, judges
November 1, 2010
The Tennessean

You could call it “the black wall.”

Like the well-known code called “the blue wall” that prevents police officers from ratting on one another, Tennessee’s system to discipline judges is set up to protect those who clad themselves in dark robes and pound gavels. It is not set up to protect those who go before them seeking justice.

There were 344 complaints filed against Tennessee justices in 2009. Only one resulted in public reprimand. That’s akin to the system shrugging it off with a “my bad.”

It looks like Tennessee lawmakers are about to attempt deep reform, and that’s excellent.

Judges in Tennessee are allegedly disciplined if they violate the Judicial Canon of Ethics by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary. It is made up of 16 people, 10 of whom are appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court judges. Judges pick the people who will judge them. Three members are selected by the Tennessee Bar Association. Lawyers asked to discipline the judge in whose courts they practice. The remaining three are political appointments.

It’s a biased and ineffective system. The Court of the Judiciary dismisses more than 90 percent of the complaints filed against judges. Until a letter goes out reprimanding a judge — and that’s about all that ever happens — the entire process is kept completely secret. Even if a judge gets a letter, it can prove meaningless. That’s the case with Davidson County General Sessions Judge Gloria Dumas, nailed for her persistent tardiness.

Even though another judge certified she’d cleaned up her act for 90 days, Tennessean reporter Brandon Gee went to court to check. Turns out she was repeatedly late, allowing a courtroom full of people — many forced to take time off work — to sit and wait on her. The judge monitoring her never physically went to see if she was on the bench.

That’s on the mild side. Imagine a truly rogue judge who has a genuine conflict of interest and shouldn’t hear your case but won’t step down. If you are brave enough to file a complaint, it will probably be dismissed. You’re unlikely to ever know what happened.

Even in the rare case when the court of judiciary suspends a judge, the judge still gets full pay. Oh, please don’t throw me in the briar patch.

Legislature should look at self

The Senate study committee is expected to file reform legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January. Give them a back pat, with one big fat caveat: When the legislative branch of our government decides to climb up on a high horse and pass new regulations on the judicial branch, it might want to look in the mirror, too.

State lawmakers still have done nothing to quell their misused and automatically increased per diems, or to reform the lobbyist-driven world soaked with potential corruption. Key decisions are still sometimes made in secret.

Judicial reform will go much smoother if the legislature gulps a spoonful of self-prescribed medicine.