Gavel Grab

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.”

The proposed Code also includes these rules:  to permit judges to endorse or oppose publicly candidates for nonjudicial offices; and to permit judges to contribute money to political campaigns.  A joint panel of the Tennessee Judicial Conference and the Trial Judges Association recommends upholding an existing prohibition on judges making public endorsements of candidates.

Justice at Stake has called for robust recusal rules when campaign contributors appear before a judge. You can learn more about this important reform from the JAS issues page on the topic or by reading a recent Chicago Tribune op-ed by JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg.

Separately, the Trial Judges Association voted to hire a lobbyist to help in dealing with legislative efforts to overhaul the Court of the Judiciary, a judicial discipline commission, according to a Tennessee Report article. Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission.

“I never dreamed — maybe I’m naive — I never dreamed that in carrying out our duties and responsibilities impartially and fairly that we would become a target of a misinformed, malevolent, agenda-driven bunch of folks. But we are,” said Circuit Court Judge Randy Kennedy. “We are right in the crosshairs.”

Danny Van Horn, president of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he saw no need for wholesale changes to the discipline commission, “but some tweaks to help make it more transparent and understandable are probably appropriate.”



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