Gavel Grab

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.

He urged that any reforms should not broach the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branch, and he described the Court of the Judiciary as having worked “pretty well” since it was established in 1979. Summers listed a series of lesser reforms that might be considered:

“Does the Court of the Judiciary need more counsel to screen cases? Yes. Should it change its name? Yes, it is not a court, but an ethics board. Does the COJ need more non-lawyers? Maybe, if that makes complainants feel better about fairness. Does the COJ need members of the legislature appointed by the Supreme Court, to ‘represent the public?’ That might not be a bad idea’ they could learn how COJ works. I suggest two legislators, with one being on an investigative panel screening appeals. Should the Supreme Court be the appointing authority? Yes.

“Whatever the General Assembly decides, I hope the separation line is not crossed. Our government is based on checks and balances, not power to change.”

Meanwhile a separate Tennesseean article was entitled, “TN lawmakers’ ethics panel has own critics/Lawmakers blast judicial conduct board, but their system is similarly secretive.”

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