When Judicial Accountability Secrecy, Good Government Collide

There’s a collision involving judicial accountability in Texas, between a judicial discipline commission and a state board assigned to investigate whether state agencies are working efficiently.

The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has refused to allow the Sunset Advisory Commission to examine its records,  the Austin American-Statesman reported recently. The judicial commission hears misconduct complaints against Texas judges. Now the same newspaper has editorialized that the conduct commission is off-base.

The conduct commission said “its meetings are closed to everyone, including the Sunset Commission and its staff.” But the newspaper editorial, entitled “Judges are not above the law,” didn’t go along.

The editorial asked, “How could a state agency whose operations and salaries are paid for with public money in order to oversee public officials be allowed to tell the public and even the Sunset Commission that its records are off-limits?” And it asserted, “It shouldn’t take legislation to pry the agency’s records open for a review of its efficiency, but if that’s what it takes, lawmakers shouldn’t hesitate in making this public agency to open up its books.”

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Reform of Tennessee Judicial Ethics Body Advances

A compromise plan to reform the way judges are held accountable in Tennessee has won approval in both the state House Judiciary Committee and the state Senate Judicial Committee.

The legislation would replace the Court of the Judiciary, as the state’s judicial discipline commission is known, with a “judicial board of conduct,” according to a (Nashville) Tennessean article. You can learn about other facets of the legislation, and its background, from Gavel Grab.

Republican Sen. Mike Faulk said that despite its compromise nature, the bill would represent an improvement. “It solves a lot of problems,” he said.“The ends of justice are served.”

Many state judges support the bill, said Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins.

Compromise Would Reform TN Judicial Ethics Body

There is growing support in Tennessee’s legislature for a compromise plan to reform the way judges are held accountable, according to a (Nashville) Tennesseean article, and the state’s judges are said to agree to the compromise.

Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, called the Court of the Judiciary. The compromise version instead would make these changes:

  • The Court of the Judiciary, as the state’s judicial discipline commission now is known, would be replaced by a new “board of judicial conduct.”
  • All power to appoint members would be removed from the Tennessee Supreme Court, which now picks 10 of the 16 members. (more…)

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.”

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Will Proceedings Against Ex-Judge Be Secret?

Former Circuit Judge Patricia Warner of Montgomery, Ala. faces a 74-count complaint by the state Judicial Inquiry Commission, with one of the counts tied to her acceptance of campaign cash (see Gavel Grab).

Now, in a case that a Montgomery Advertiser editorial says touches on the credibility of the courts, Warner apparently has asked for a mediator to decide the charges in secret, not in public by the Court of the Judiciary. The editorial registers a resounding “no”:

“If the court allows that to happen, Alabamians have every right to wonder just what the court system is trying to hide.”

“[I]f the public does not have access to both the process and the results of the case, the credibility of the entire state judicial system will take a huge hit.”

The editorial notes that Judicial Inquiry Commission favors keeping the case public. The JIC has contended that “public censure is not to punish the miscreant judge, but to continually restore, renew, and replenish the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and its ability to police itself.”

State Legislators Examine Judicial Accountability

In the two disparate states of New Mexico and Tennessee, state legislators are seeking or weighing reform of the way judges are held accountable.

Republican Rep. Dennis Kintigh wrote a commentary in NMPolitics.net entitled, “It’s time for a review of how judges are held accountable.” In the wake of recent scandals and allegations, he suggested,  “I believe that now is the time for a serious review of how the judiciary and legal profession as a whole is held accountable. At this point, everything ultimately rests in the hands of five Supreme Court justices who are immune to, and independent of, meaningful outside accountability.”

Republican Rep. Eric Watson is co-chair of a joint committee that has held hearings about Tennessee’s Court of the Judiciary, a judicial discipline commission, and ways to improve its work and transparency (see Gavel Grab). Watson’s opinion column in The Chattanoogan recapped concerns raised before the panel.

“While the reporting [by COJ] has improved, much of the COJ’s work is still done secretly behind closed doors,” Watson wrote. He also pointed to questions about the composition of the 16-member commission and especially whether attorneys are well positioned to discipline judges.

Judicial Ethics Panel Targeted by Tennessee Legislators

Some Tennessee legislators have warned they will take matters into their own hands if the state’s judicial discipline commission isn’t revamped.

“Judges, you better get your house in order because we’re going to do it for you if you can’t,” Republican Rep. Tony Shipley warned at a legislative hearing Tuesday, after hearing disgruntled litigants air their complaints, according to a Tennesseean article.

Gavel Grab has reported on Tea Party conservatives’  push for Tennessee legislators to take control over naming members of the discipline commission, called the Court of the Judiciary. At this week’s hearing, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins said Tennessee judges are willing to lower the standard for when a full investigation may be launched into a complaint against a judge.

The presiding judge for the Court of the Judiciary, Chris Craft, said most complaints lodged against judges are frivolous, beyond the authority of the commission or deal with legal decisions that should be taken up in appeals courts. “What we don’t do, is we don’t sweep things under the rug,” he said.

Tennessee’s legislature is eyeing a major debate next year over possibly scrapping the state’s merit selection system for picking judges (see Gavel Grab). At this week’s hearing, a legislative panel did not make a recommendation on retaining the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission or its Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which are set to expire.

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.”

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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. (more…)

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. (more…)