NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A plan backed by Tennessee judges that would change the ethics panel that disciplines jurists is at odds with arguably the judiciary’s biggest critic in the legislature — Sen. Mae Beavers .
The differences in opinion came out this week at a debate before the Tennessee Press Association between Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jeff Bivins.
Beavers has long complained that the ethics board, known as the Court of the Judiciary, is dismissing too many citizen complaints against judges accused of serious misconduct.
The judges are backing legislation that would make it more difficult to dismiss a complaint against a jurist. But they still insist that the vast majority the disciplinary board be made up of judges.
The majority of members now are judges appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
“I just think it looks bad when you have judges appointed by judges to judge judges,” Beavers said at the debate.
Beavers wants fewer judges on the panel and thinks they should be appointed by the speakers of the House and Senate.
Bivins, who is also a member of the judicial disciplinary board, said it was necessary to have a majority of judges because the panel has to conduct hearings that are in compliance with legal rules. He also said that it’s customary for members of the same profession to discipline their own, the way doctors, architects, pharmacists and others do.
“So, we’re simply asking to be treated like the other professionals,” Bivins said.
Beavers and Bivins agreed that there have been problems with the panel.
Records show that the court disposed of 334 complaints against judges last fiscal year, with the overwhelming majority dismissed. The panel issued nine public reprimands, six private reprimands and three deferred discipline agreements.
All complaints are closed to the public, but some records will be open if a judge is formally charged. Complaints against lawmakers to the legislature’s own ethics panel, the Tennessee Ethics Commission, are also not open to the public.
Beavers thinks that the public should be able to know if a judge has at least two complaints alleging the same type of misconduct. But Bivins said it wouldn’t be fair to judges who work in counties where there is a prison, because prisoners file multiple complaints against judges for their decisions.
He said that Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell are among lawmakers supporting the legislation that the judges want.
The Tennessee Supreme Court recently revised ethical rules for judges in the wake of complaints by Beavers and other lawmakers. Those new rules, which included banning judges from making campaign contributions, have been called by some as a model for the nation.
The COJ has also vowed to do a better job of reporting statistics about the number of complaints it receives against judges.
“We do not dispute that the Court of the Judiciary needed some change, and needs some additional change,” Bivins said. “We think perhaps it got lax for a while. And we thank Senators Beavers and other members of the legislature for pointing this out. But what we don’t want to do is move forward with legislation that not a single judge in the state supports.”