News release from Administrative Office of the Courts:
Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld the Court of the Judiciary’s decision that Cocke County General Sessions Court Judge John A. Bell violated the Code of Judicial Conduct for taking too long to decide a personal injury case and participating in an ex parte communication. The high court also affirmed the Court of the Judiciary’s sanctions against Bell, which included a 90-day suspension.
The Court of Judiciary’s disciplinary action came as a result of a complaint from David Pleau, who filed a lawsuit in Bell’s court following a car accident with an uninsured motorist. Pleau, who was acting pro se, named his insurance carrier but not the uninsured motorist in the suit. Merastar Insurance Company, Pleau’s insurance carrier, filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. At the end of the hearing, Bell said he would issue his decision in a week.
Despite repeated follow-up from both Merastar and Pleau, Bell did not issue an order until more than nine months after the hearing. In his order, Bell dismissed the action against Merastar citing Pleau’s failure to name the uninsured motorist in the lawsuit.
Due to an apparent oversight by the clerk’s office, neither Merastar nor Pleau received timely copies of Bell’s order. As a result, Pleau was unable to appeal the judgment because the 10-day window for filing an appeal had already expired.
Following this series of events, Pleau filed a complaint against Bell with the Court of the Judiciary. He also filed a second lawsuit in Bell’s court, this time, naming the uninsured motorist in the case.
While the Court of the Judiciary was investing Pleau’s complaint and Pleau’s second lawsuit was still pending, Bell hired a local attorney to contact Pleau and ask him to dismiss the complaint against Bell.
Pleau informed the Court of the Judiciary’s disciplinary counsel about the phone call from Bell’s attorney and the Court of the Judiciary filed formal charges against Bell. The charges included three counts -taking more than nine months to decide Pleau’s case, hearing Pleau’s second case despite already making a judgment in the same matter, and participating in ex parte communication with Pleau while the case was still pending in Bell’s court.
Following a hearing, the Court of the Judiciary found that Bell violated the Code of Judicial Conduct in each of the three counts. As a result of these findings, the Court of the Judiciary suspended Bell for 90 days. The Court also ordered that Bell decide all future cases within 30 calendar days and attend 42 hours of judicial ethics training by the end of 2012.
Bell appealed the Court of the Judiciary’s decision to the Tennessee Supreme Court. In its decision, the Supreme Court provided a historical and legal analysis of its authority to discipline members of the judiciary. The Court unanimously affirmed the Court of the Judiciary’s findings that Bell’s delay in deciding the case and his ex-parte communication violated the Code of Judicial Conduct.
However, the high court disagreed with the Court of the Judiciary’s assertion that Bell should have recused himself from the matter because he did not disclose that he had previously decided the matter.
“A judge’s prior decision in a case does not, in and of itself, make the judge prejudiced against any particular party,” Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark wrote on behalf of the court.
In reviewing the appropriateness of the sanctions, the Supreme Court noted the seriousness of the findings and stated that the Court of the Judiciary “carefully considered all the factors in imposing a penalty”.
Despite disagreeing with one count of the Court of the Judiciary’s findings, the Supreme Court affirmed the sanctions imposed by the Court of the Judiciary in order “to maintain the integrity of and public confidence in our judicial system and to discourage similar instances of misconduct in the future.”
Bell served his 90-day suspension during August, September and October 2010.