Tennessee High Court Weighs New Ethics Rules for Judges

The Tennessee Supreme Court held a four-hour hearing on revised ethics rules for state judges, including stricter recusal rules, and it reached no immediate conclusion.

The proposed recusal rules include one of the strongest bans in the U.S. on political influence, according to Adam Skaggs of the Brennan Center for Justice, who was quoted in a Tennesseean article about the Supreme Court’s hearing. Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center, a JAS partner group, recently urged the Tennessee Supreme Court to adopt the new judicial recusal rules. The entire set of revised rules was proposed by the Tennessee Bar Association (see Gavel Grab).

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 of Judicial Conduct 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.

The Tennesseean also reported on the political backdrop for the court hearing on judicial conduct rules:

“The effort comes as the Republican-controlled state legislature is considering several bills that would restructure Tennessee’s system of choosing, electing and disciplining judges. It also comes amid criticism that judges have been unresponsive to complaints of conflicts of interest and that many are too distracted by outside pursuits to do their jobs effectively.”

To learn about the need for robust recusal rules when campaign contributors appear before a judge, check out the JAS issues page on the topic or read a Chicago Tribune op-ed by JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg.


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