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Tennessee Legislature OK’s New Plan for Disciplining Judges

Compromise legislation to abolish Tennessee’s judicial discipline commission and replace it with a new ethics body, and to reform the way judges are held accountable,  won legislative approval and was headed to the governor for his signature.

The plan seeks to increase legislative oversight of the judicial branch. Although it follows years of sometimes heated argument, according to a Knoxville News Sentinel article, the compromise that eventually was struck drew widespread support. It passed the state House on a vote of 88-5 this week.

Gavel Grab reported earlier on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, now called the Court of the Judiciary. The compromise version did not incorporate that idea. It makes these changes: Read more

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Compromise Would Reform TN Judicial Ethics Body

There is growing support in Tennessee’s legislature for a compromise plan to reform the way judges are held accountable, according to a (Nashville) Tennesseean article, and the state’s judges are said to agree to the compromise.

Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, called the Court of the Judiciary. The compromise version instead would make these changes:

  • The Court of the Judiciary, as the state’s judicial discipline commission now is known, would be replaced by a new “board of judicial conduct.”
  • All power to appoint members would be removed from the Tennessee Supreme Court, which now picks 10 of the 16 members. Read more

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Reform for Tennessee Judicial Ethics Body Debated

Tea party conservatives have pushed for Tennessee legislators to grab control over naming members of a judicial discipline commission, and legislators now are weighing two rival bills, one sponsored by a top critic of the panel and the other supported by judges.

The commission is called the Court of the Judiciary. It currently has 16 members, 10 of whom are judges — and most of the judges are Democrats, appointed by the state Supreme Court. The legislature is controlled by Republicans.

“The appearance of judges appointing judges to hear complaints on judges doesn’t give them much credibility,” said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, a Republican; her bill would get rid of the existing board and start over by cutting it to 12 members, including four sitting judges and one retiree. All members would be named by speakers of the House or Senate.

A reform bill pushed by judges would eliminate the Court of the Judiciary and set up in its place a “Board of Judicial Conduct,” still with 10 of its 16 members who are judges. The board would have a lower standard for conducting a full investigation; board members, not staff, would have responsibility for discarding complaints; and the board would issue public reports quarterly, according to a Tennessee Report article.

“Certainly there have been issues, and I think we’re trying to address those issues,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins. “We have some new membership. I think some of us are looking harder at cases and taking a little tougher line.”

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Judicial Ethics Panel Targeted by Tennessee Legislators

Some Tennessee legislators have warned they will take matters into their own hands if the state’s judicial discipline commission isn’t revamped.

“Judges, you better get your house in order because we’re going to do it for you if you can’t,” Republican Rep. Tony Shipley warned at a legislative hearing Tuesday, after hearing disgruntled litigants air their complaints, according to a Tennesseean article.

Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, called the Court of the Judiciary. At this week’s hearing, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins said Tennessee judges are willing to lower the standard for when a full investigation may be launched into a complaint against a judge.

The presiding judge for the Court of the Judiciary, Chris Craft, said most complaints lodged against judges are frivolous, beyond the authority of the commission or deal with legal decisions that should be taken up in appeals courts. “What we don’t do, is we don’t sweep things under the rug,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature is eyeing a major debate next year over possibly scrapping the state’s merit selection system for picking judges (see Gavel Grab). At this week’s hearing, a legislative panel did not make a recommendation on retaining the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission or its Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which are set to expire.

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Tennessee Judges Could Face Tougher Recusal Rule

At a statewide gathering, Tennessee judges made news on two fronts. The chief justice presented a proposed new ethics code, including more robust rules governing when judges must step aside from hearing a case. And trial judges voted to retain a lobbyist for help on a hot issue in the legislature.

Meeting at the Tennessee Judicial Conference, judges heard about a new Code of Judicial Conduct proposed by the Tennessee Bar Association, according to a (Nashville) Tennesseean article. One rule would require a judge to step down from a case if he got campaign support from parties to a case, or from attorneys, rising to a level that would lead a reasonable person to question the judge’s impartiality.

The proposed Code also requires judges to issue  a written decision on recusal requests that includes their reasoning for stepping aside or deciding to preside over the case. It further provides a process for review of denied recusal requests at the trial court and appellate levels.

Joe P. Binkley, presiding judge of Nashville’s trial courts, said the new recusal rules were “long overdue.”

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Tennessee Legislature to Weigh Judicial Recusal Rules Change?

Tennessee legislators, in addition to considering a revamp of the state’s judicial discipline commission, may look at setting tougher rules governing when judges accused of a conflict of interest must step aside from hearing a case.

Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, called the Court of the Judiciary. Also under discussion, a Knoxville News Sentinel article said, are stricter recusal rules imposed by the legislature and  repealing a law that permits reprimands of judges to be kept secret. Judges say the latter proposal would make bad policy.

Judicial recusal rules currently are set by the state Supreme Court. For the legislature to change them could violate the Tennessee constitution, said Chris Craft, presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary.

According to the article, the Tennessee Bar Association has proposed a revision of current rules that calls for an immediate, expedited appeal of a judge’s refusal to recuse himself or herself. These appeals now can take months.

To learn about the need for robust recusal rules when campaign contributors appear before a judge, check out the JAS issues page on the topic or read a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed by JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg.

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Commentary: Avert 'Takeover' of Tennessee Judicial Ethics Body

A flurry of news media commentary suggests ways to preserve the valuable work of Tennessee’s judicial discipline commission, while possibly adopting reforms far short of a political takeover by the legislative branch.

Tea Party conservatives are pushing for Tennessee legislators to grab control over naming members of the Court of the Judiciary, and the 16-member commission drew fire during two hearings by an ad hoc legislative committee last week (see Gavel Grab).

In The Tennesseean, columnist Gail Kerr wrote that “The Republican-dominated General Assembly is loaded for bear,” and most of the commission’s 10 members who are judges are Democrats.  The judges are appointed by the state Supreme Court. “Unfortunately, the legislature is maneuvering a takeover of the judicial branch for purely political reasons,” she remarked.

Kerr called for broadening the selection of members of the panel, while averting politics in their selection, and also for a healthy dose of transparency, with a public announcement of all judges who are disciplined. Her column was headlined, “Judicial board needs transparency, not a takeover.”

“Judicial ethics board may get a makeover/Review should not stray into separation of powers,” declared the headline for a Tennesseean column by Paul Summers, a former state attorney general and former appellate judge. Read more

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Tennessee Legislators Set Sights on Judicial Ethics Body

As Tea Party conservatives push for Tennessee legislators to grab control over naming members of a judicial discipline commission, they are drawing on serial litigant John Jay Hooker’s testimony and disgruntled parties’ criticisms of judges as “god-like” and elite.

Hooker was fined in 2007 and had his law license suspended for filing frivolous lawsuits. His license is currently inactive.

Hooker has feuded with the Tennessee Supreme Court and even called at a hearing on the judicial ethics body for resignation or impeachment of the entire high court, a Tennesseean article reported.  Hooker, 81 years old and a frequent candidate in Tennessee, opposes Tennessee’s merit selection plan for picking appellate judges.

Bert Brandenburg, Justice at Stake’s executive director, cautioned in a Washington Post op-ed this year that “impeachment is reserved for serious misconduct.” Americans need to “catch their breath and avoid waging war on the courts,” he wrote. To learn more about impeachment threats on the judiciary, see the JAS issues page on the topic.

In Tennessee, Republican Sen. Mae Beavers “and a small band of mostly Republican lawmakers” convened the ad hoc committee that held hearings this week, according to a Tennessee Report article, to consider critics’ complaints that the Court of the Judiciary needs more transparency and dismisses many complaints brought to it. Read more

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Lawmakers Bid to Reshape Tennessee Judicial Ethics Body

Social conservatives and fair courts advocates are poised to spar in Tennessee’s legislature over a conservative bid to grab control over the state’s Court of the Judiciary.

The Court of the Judiciary considers misconduct complaints against judges and determines whether sanctions are appropriate. With conservative legislators seeking to strip Tennessee’s Supreme Court of the power to appoint a majority of Court of Judiciary members, defenders of the judiciary are up in arms, according to a (Nashville) City Paper article.

Republican state Sen. Mae Beavers, a tea party favorite, is pushing a bill to place the Court of the Judiciary under the authority of the legislature, now controlled by Republicans. A similar bill failed in the last legislative session.

“It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain control over a separate branch of government,” said Steve Daniel, a retired judge who formerly presided over the Court of the Judiciary. “It’s nothing more than an attempt to gain power over who sits on the court. They want to try to influence the judiciary, to intimidate judges, to make them more palatable to their particular agenda.”

When state legislators won’t police their own unethical behavior, it’s absurd for them to take a watchdog role over the judicial branch, Daniel added.

Critics of the judiciary disagree and say they’re advocating for ways to hold judges more accountable.

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Wednesday Media Summary

KAGAN COMMENTARY

AP: As Marshall clerk, Kagan was wary of conservatives
MARK SHERMAN and JESSICA GRESKO – 5/25/2010

NOMINATION/POLITICS

Washington Post: Senators will have less background on Kagan to help make Supreme Court decision
Robert Barnes – 5/26/2010

USA Today/The Oval: Kagan campaign for Supreme Court: Both sides step it up
Kathy Kiely – 5/25/2010

Boston Globe/AP: Kagan clerking notes may draw GOP fire
Mark Sherman and Jessica Gresko – 5/26/2010

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Sen. Isakson questions Kagan on water wars, other issues
Bob Keefe – 5/25/2010

Huffington Post: WorldNetDaily’s Aaron Klein Hurls Slime At Elena Kagan
Terry Krepel – 5/25/2010
Read more…

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