Board dismisses ethics complaints against Supreme Court justices

The state Board of Judicial Conduct has dismissed complaints charging three state Supreme Court justices with violating ethical rules, according to the conservative activist who filed the complaints.

George Scoville of Nashville posted a copy of the letter dismissing the complaints on a blog Wednesday. At the same time, the former staffer at the Cato Institute in Washington wrote that he has filed a new complaint against Chief Justice Gary Wade. (Note: His blog post, with documents, is HERE.)

Scoville filed complaints against Wade, Justice Cornelia Clark and Justice Sharon Lee last month contending they violated a provision of the Code of Judicial Conduct that prohibits judges from endorsing candidate for elective office.

Scoville basically contended the justices were endorsing one another inappropriately by campaigning together, raising campaign funds together and appearing jointly around the state. He also said rules were broken by using state facilities – a picture of the Supreme Court building beside the state Capitol building, for example – in campaign materials.

The new complaint contends that the prohibition on political endorsements is violated by a billboard sponsored by the chief justice’s campaign committee in Sevierville, Wade’s home town, that says, “Retain Your Supreme Court, vote Aug. 7.”

Scoville said in an interview that he is not optimistic about the new complaint being successful and questions the whole procedure for disciplining judges who breach ethical rules because it involves “judges judging judges” and operates “behind a veil of secrecy.”

Chris Craft, a Memphis Criminal Court judge who serves as chairman of the Board of Judicial Conduct, could not be reached for comment. He has previously pointed out that board rules forbid any member from even acknowledging that a complaint has been filed unless both the person filing the complaint and the judge targeted waive their rights to confidentiality.

Scoville said Wednesday he received a letter from Craft, dated June 30 and received over the weekend, notifying him that the complaints he filed against five judges – the three Supreme Court justices along Circuit Court Judge James Martin of Williamson County and Criminal Court Judge Randal Wyatt of Nashville – were all dismissed.

A complaint filed against a sixth judge, Circuit Court Judge Timothy Easter of Franklin, who was last month nominated for a seat on the state Court of Criminal Appeals, was not mentioned.

Scoville noted that Easter is also vice chairman of the Board of Judicial Conduct and said he was uncertain the reason for Easter’s “conspicuous” absence in the letter of dismissal – especially since the complaint against Easter was virtually identical to the one he filed against Martin. Both involved the judges appearing in a joint photo with Clark, which Scoville contends amounted to an endorsement of Clark’s reelection.

Craft’s letter, which has the words “Personal/Confidential” in bold type at the top, says Scoville’s allegations “were carefully reviewed and submitted to an investigative panel ” of the board, but after “careful consideration” the panel “determined that the complaints do not rise to the level that would justify further action.

” In order for us to proceed, the statute requires that there must be specific facts shown that establish probable cause that the judge’s conduct constituted a violation (of a state law),” the letter says. “Our jurisdiction is strictly limited. We are only allowed to investigate allegations of judicial ethics violations listed in Tenn. Code Ann. $ 17-5-302.

” In deciding whether or not the Board can successfully sanction a judge, the investigative panel must also consider that in order to discipline a judge, the proof of the ethics violation must be “clear and convincing”…. The investigative panel did not feel such a burden could be met in this case,” says the letter.

A spokeswoman for the justices declined comment on the dismissal.