Gavel Grab

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.

Explained Janice Johnson, a former legislative director of the Tennessee Christian Coalition and leader of the drive, “The way the legislature holds the judiciary in check is they can impeach or remove rogue judges. We haven’t impeached a judge in 53 years.” She also characterized the Court of the Judiciary’s current composition with 10 sitting judges as “foxes appointing foxes to oversee foxes that are raiding the henhouse.”

This month, a joint panel with a large number of critics of the judiciary will hold hearings on the Court of the Judiciary. That 16-member body now has 10 members named by the state Supreme Court, three by the Tennessee Bar Association and one each by the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate. Beavers’ bill would shrink the Court of the Judiciary to 12 members, all appointed by the House and Senate speakers.

Separately, Tennessee’s appointment-and-retention system for choosing judges is under renewed attack and will be challenged in the legislature next year; to learn about that battle, see Gavel Grab.


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