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Judges, Lawmakers Strike Deal on Ethics Board

by Andrea Zelinski on March 14, 2012

Lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to compromise legislation that would revamp the Court of the Judiciary, an ethical watchdog panel charged with probing and punishing judges accused of improper or unprofessional behavior.

Members of the committee found common ground on a list of provisions that will rename and reconstitute the makeup of the body with the intent of emboldening it to more aggressively investigate complaints against judges. The new board would also be required to report on its official inquiries to top House and Senate leaders.

“Nobody is completely happy, and nobody is completely miserable, and I hope that’s the situation we’ve arrived at,” Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, said just prior to the 8-0 judiciary committee vote on Senate Bill 2671.

The key change requires that the board hand the two General Assembly speakers a rundown of statistics on each judge reprimanded more than once. Information on “public reprimands” is already available, but “private reprimands” would be available only to the speakers.

“We’re very satisfied with that,” said Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins, who worked with the Legislature to broker the deal.

“We think that’s a fair balance because the Legislature has an obligation under their impeachment power to have notice of what’s going on,” he said.

Concern that the Court of the Judiciary lacks independence, transparency and resolve has existed for some time. In September Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers hosted a series of hearings examining purported flaws within the Court of the Judiciary. The key phrase lawmakers like Beavers have used to sum up what they see as the core dysfunction within the Court of the Judiciary is “judges judging judges.”

The Mt. Juliet Republican, who has been the driving force behind judicial ethics reform, offered little in the way of comment to the committee as the sponsor gave her credit for pushing the issue, saying only, “I think you can say I’ve been a lightening rod, and I feel it.”

Senate Bill 2671 would set up a new panel to review ethics complaints against judges, called the Board of Judicial Conduct. It would still be controlled by judges.

Ten current or former judges, appointed by various councils of judges, would sit on the panel. In addition, the governor and chamber speakers would each pick an attorney and a layperson to join the board, for a total of six non-judges.

The bill also requires a subcommittee within the panel to decide whether to trash a complaint or use it to launch an investigation. That group would be required to have at least one non-judge. Currently, the board’s disciplinary counsel decides whether a complaint has merit, not its members.

The last time bill sponsor Sen. Mike Faulk ran a similar measure in the committee, it stalled on a 3-3-3 tie.

Judges and reformers in the Legislature have argued over the bill. The latest reincarnation results from a compromise by the judges. Prior to adding the component sending information to the speakers, the measure faced criticism in the House where some lawmakers argued the new board still lacks public accountability and gives judges too much power to police their own. The House Judiciary Committee still approved the bill, advancing it to another committee.

If the plan passes, it would dissolve the current Court of the Judiciary on June 30 and launch the Board of Judicial Conduct July 1.

Faulk, R-Church Hill, said he expects the full Senate to consider the bill Monday. The House measure faces a vote in the Government Operations Committee Wednesday before it can proceed to the full chamber.

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