TN lawmakers grill courts’ disciplinary body

The commission responsible for investigating ethical complaints against judges is fighting for its life in hearings before a special committee of the Tennessee General Assembly this week.

It’s the second year in a row that the Court of the Judiciary has been called before lawmakers to face critics who believe legitimate complaints have been ignored by the 16-member commission that includes 10 judges and conducts most of its work behind closed doors.

The stakes are higher this year, though, as legislative leaders have signaled that, when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, they will quickly take up bills that could alter the oversight of some of Tennessee’s most powerful officials.

“We would like for them not to dissolve our organization. We would like them to continue to allow us to do the job that we’re doing,” said Memphis criminal court Judge Chris Craft, presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary. “I’m not sure why they’ve decided that maybe we’re trying to sweep things under the rug.”

The state constitution gives the legislature the power to remove judges but does not spell out a procedure for investigating complaints or handing down less severe punishments. The Judicial Standards Commission was created in 1971 to play that role and to recommend the removal of judges to the legislature. It was replaced by the Court of the Judiciary in 1979.

Lawmakers have grown dissatisfied with the Court of the Judiciary in recent years, saying that it dismisses too many complaints without investigating them, keeps too much of its work private and includes too many members who are judges.

“Would it be possible for this legislature to do away with the Court of the Judiciary and to create a process where the committees of the House and the Senate, the judiciary committees, could create an investigative body themselves?” said state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

That suggestion worries the state Supreme Court, the Tennessee Bar Association and other supporters of the Court of the Judiciary who believe it would be an improper infringement on a coequal branch of government.

Most cases dismissed

Of the 334 cases that the Court of the Judiciary disposed of last year, 314, or 94 percent, were dismissed. State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, questioned why 181 complaints were thrown out last year by the commission’s contract disciplinary counsel without a preliminary investigation.

Craft said many complaints are ridiculous. He said he doubts taxpayers would approve of the court expending resources to investigate a 60-page complaint filed by “an inmate off their psychotropic medication” or a mother complaining about the judges in her daughter’s beauty pageant.

Since 1992, 5,193 complaints have been filed with the Court of the Judiciary. Those cases have resulted in eight suspensions, 31 public censures or reprimands, 46 private actions and 36 deferred discipline agreements, which allow judges to avoid punishment if they correct their behavior. Five judges have been recommended for removal since 1978, the last in 1998.

“Just because no one has been impeached does not mean the system is not working,” Bradley County Chancellor Jerri Bryant said.

Beavers was not convinced.

“How do we know if we don’t know what kind of complaints are being filed, whether it rises to that level?” Beavers asked, referring to the work done in private.

Craft said this secrecy is important to protect judges from being smeared by baseless complaints. Craft said private disciplinary actions are used to correct minor or temporary issues, and that such resolutions might not be possible if complaints were public from the outset because judges would have nothing to lose in fighting the complaint.

Critics said judges, as public officials, don’t deserve that kind of shielding from public scrutiny.

“The Court of the Judiciary is in the whitewash business,” said John Jay Hooker, a former two-time Democratic governor nominee and critic of the Court of the Judiciary and state Supreme Court. “They ought to get a pair of overalls and a brush.”

If nothing else, a name change appears to be in store. Craft and Bryant agreed that the moniker “Court of the Judiciary” confuses the public by suggesting that the body is an appellate court of law rather than a disciplinary board.

“As much as people want us to,” Craft said, “we can’t be a second avenue of appeal.”


TN lawmakers grill courts’ disciplinary body
Brandon Gee
September 21, 2011
The Tennessean