Gavel Grab

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.

“Judges judging judges is not working in our current system of judicial accountability as those judges have a vested interest,” Danielle Malmquist, unhappy that the judge in her divorce case did not recuse himself, told the committee.

“Judges have a god-like persona,” Karen Caldwell said, according to an Associated Press article. “They know if you file a complaint against them, it’s going to go in front of their judge friends.”

Court of Appeals Judge Jeffrey Bivins, on the other hand, said that most professional boards in the state have a majority of members from that profession, which provides safeguards.

“If it’s a person who’s not learned in the area of that procedure, they may well make decisions that could lead to due process violations or some type of violations to where the disciplinary action ultimately wouldn’t be upheld,” Judge Bivins said.

Beavers laid out her reasoning in a Tennesseean op-ed and wrote, “Today, the majority of the Court of the Judiciary is composed of judges appointed by the Supreme Court — ‘judges appointing judges to judge judges.’”

In The Paris (Tenn.) Post-Intelligencer, an editorial countered, “The proposal to have all the panel members appointed by legislative officials looks strongly like a takeover that violates the principle of separation of powers.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court currently appoints 10 members of the 16-member disciplinary commission, and they are judges. Beavers reintroduced legislation to shrink the commission to 12 members, with only five members permitted to be judges and all members appointed by speakers of the House and Senate (see Gavel Grab).

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