Gavel Grab

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.”

Critics have complained that the Court of the Judiciary needs more transparency and dismisses many complaints brought to it. To read background about the controversy, see Gavel Grab.

According to the article, judges and legislators agree the state’s system for disciplining judges is flawed, but there is disagreement about how much influence judges should have in the watchdog role. One Senate panel advanced the version backed by judges, and Beavers’ panel still has to vote on the legislation.

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