Tag Archives: judiciary

McNally to seek reelection; has things ‘left undone’ (including judiciary reform)

Oak Ridge Republican Randy McNally, first elected to the state Senate in 1986, says he has decided to seek reelection to another four-year term believing “there are a number of things sort of left undone” — notably including “reform of our state judiciary.”

“It seems the system now is more for the protection of criminals and the enrichment of trial lawyers and not for protection of the public,” he said.

McNally and state Rep. Ryan Haynes, R-Knoxville, had earlier announced plans to propose legislation requiring drug testing of all judges, citing legal challenges to convictions in the killings of Channon Christian and Chris Newsom after revelations that the trial judge, Richard Baumgartner, was abusing narcotics. The judge later resigned and pleaded guilty to drug-related charges.

After further review, McNally said last week the draft bill will be revised to avoid potential legal problems. Instead of simply mandating drug testing of judges, the legislation will allow either side in a court case to request a drug test for the judge to preside at a trial. If the judge refuses, he or she would then have to step aside and have another judge appointed to hear the case, McNally said.

The senator said he also wants to push legislation providing more scrutiny and new restrictions on state funding of criminal defense lawyers, citing a 2011 News Sentinel report that a dozen attorneys were members of a “$100,000 club” in billing for fees of more than that amount in one year. McNally said he thinks there are now lawyers in a “$1 million club.”

One proposed McNally bill: If a conviction is overturned because an appeals court finds the defendant had “inadequate legal counsel,” the lawyer providing that legal counsel would have to reimburse the state for all fees he or she was paid. The attorney could also be barred from getting fees in other cases.

“If the defense was inadequate, why don’t we (taxpayers) have a right to try and get our money back?” McNally said.

Further, the senator said he wants to push for a legislative change to court procedural rules that allow defense attorneys to “trash the victim (of a crime) just for the hell of it” while court decisions restrict remarks a prosecutor can make about a defendant.

McNally, who will turn 70 next month and chairs the Senate Finance Committee, had until last week voiced indecision about seeking a new term. He has served as a legislator since 1979 — first in the House and then in the Senate, where he is third in seniority. The state’s senior senator, Democrat Douglas Henry of Nashville, has announced he will not seek re-election next year and Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis, second in seniority, has said he might seek election as a judge instead of a new Senate term.

Lawmakers Demand TBI Files on DA Investigation

Senate Judiciary Committee members on Thursday directed the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to let them view files of the agency’s probe into allegations involving 10th District Attorney Steve Bebb of Cleveland, reports Andy Sher.
Seven members, including Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, voted in favor of the resolution. Two members, Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney, of Jackson, abstained.
A similar effort in the House stalled at least temporarily after Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, blocked approval of nine bills and resolutions on various matters, only one of which involved Bebb, by the three-member Delayed Bills Committee. Approval requires all three members.
House GOP leaders say they intend to put that back on track today.
Reached by telephone Tuesday night, Bebb said, “I really don’t want to make any comment right now.”
The effort to obtain the TBI’s investigation of Bebb comes after Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper on March 25 released his long-awaited report on Bebb and alleged misconduct in the 10th Judicial District, which includes Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties.
Relying on the TBI investigation, Cooper criticized Bebb’s office for poor judgment, mismanagement and deficient record keeping. But Cooper said he found no prosecutable evidence against Bebb on allegations of prosecutorial and financial misconduct, speaking untruthfully under oath and other offenses.
Bell and Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, had called on Cooper to investigate following questions raised about Bebb last year in a Times Free Press series.
“This is not an issue I take up lightly,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, told colleagues late Tuesday afternoon. “It is not an issue that is meant to reveal information that is confidential. But it is a serious issue and it’s important for the Judiciary Committee to exercise its oversight ability.”

Nullification Bill Fails on 4-4 Tie Vote in Senate Judiciary

After an hour of impassioned debate over whether state legislatures can overrule federal statutes or U.S. Supreme Court decisions, legislation calling for Tennessee nullification of federal firearms laws failed on a 4-4 tie vote Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
State Attorney General Bob Cooper had issued a formal legal opinion declaring the bill (SB250) was unconstitutional because of the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. But sponsor Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, brought in witnesses to counter Cooper’s opinion.
Most notable was a woman calling herself “Publius Huldah,” who refused to give her real name. She operates a blog under that name that promotes nullification as a valid constitutional principle.
“When the federal government makes a clearly ursurpatious law, such as restricting firearms, it is the duty of the state” to nullify that law, she said.
The committee chairman, Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown, said the bill is unconstitutional and could lead to Tennessee sheriffs and their deputies “going out and using deadly force, potentially to shoot and kill federal authorities, for enforcing the federal laws.”
The bill, as filed declares the federal agents trying to enforce a law deemed void by the Legislature would be subject to felony prosecution. An amendment added Wednesday at Beavers’ request dropped the crime rating to a misdemeanor, which she said would mean federal agents could be issued a citation rather than being arrested and taken into custody by state law enforcement officers.
A legislative liaison for Gov. Bill Haslam was asked the governor’s view on the bill. Samuel Arnold told the committee the administration has “significant concerns about the constitutionality” of the bill and there is “a good chance he (Haslam) is not going to sign it.” Without an actual veto, however, the bill would become law without the governor’s signature.
The final 4-4 vote came with one member of the panel, Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, absent. Those voting for the bill were Sens. Mike Bell, R-Riceville; Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville; Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; and Mark Green, R-Clarksville. Voting no were Sens. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson; Kelsey; Doug Overbey, R-Maryville; and John Stevens, R-Huntingdon.

Ramsey’s Gun Bill Zips Through Committee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal that would allow handgun carry permit holders to store firearms in their vehicles no matter where they are parked is headed for a vote on the Senate floor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed its version of the bill 8-0 on Tuesday. (Note: Sen. Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, abstained) It’s now being scheduled for a full Senate vote and could be on the Senate floor later this week.
The measure backed by the National Rifle Association failed last year amid property rights arguments made by the business community. The NRA and other gun rights advocates blamed House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart for the bill’s failure, and bankrolled a successful effort to oust her in the primary.
Bill Ozier, chairman of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the proposal is better than last year’s. But he says it still needs specifics.

Constitutional Amendment on Judicial Appointments Advances

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to amend the state constitution to allow the governor to appoint appellate judges is headed for a vote on the Senate floor.
The measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, passed the committee 8-1 on Tuesday and is being scheduled for a full Senate vote. (Note: The no came from Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville.)
John Jay Hooker, a two-time Democratic Party nominee for governor and vocal opponent of the measure, spoke before the vote and told members of the committee that “people want the right to elect these judges.”
Also Tuesday, members of the committee unanimously approved a measure that would prohibit courts from subpoenaing the names of anonymous commenters on news websites.
The measure, also sponsored by Kelsey, is headed for a full Senate vote.

AP Report on Judicial Displine Legislation

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is about to adopt a new method for disciplining judges that supporters say contains more accountability and should help restore the public’s faith in the judicial system.
“We got a lot of things in it that we wanted,” said state Sen. Mae Beavers. “I think it ended up being a fairly good piece of legislation. There’s more accountability than there is at the present time.”
The Mt. Juliet Republican has long been an outspoken critic of the Court of the Judiciary, which she said has dismissed too many citizen complaints against judges accused of serious misconduct.
The proposal that overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the legislature and is being reviewed by the governor would terminate the court in July and replace it with a 16-member Board of Judicial Conduct that would have a similar mission of ensuring that judges are ethical and fit to serve on the bench.

Continue reading

Hawkins Judge, Accused of Wrongfully Taking Money, Resigns

A Hawkins County judge has agreed to resign after he was formally charged with violating the state’s judicial code of conduct for taking money from clients for his personal benefit.
From the News Sentinel:
In an agreement reached Friday with the Tennessee Court of Judiciary, James Taylor is immediately suspended from his position as general sessions judge in Hawkins County and will resign on May 1.
Upon his resignation, the formal charges against him will be retired, according to the agreement. But the settlement will not apply to any civil lawsuits filed against him that claim mishandling of clients’ money and sexual harassment.
Taylor, who also is an attorney, was accused of taking more than $9,000 from a client for personal benefit and claiming payment for services that he didn’t perform.
He is under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. No criminal charges have been filed. He also is the defendant in civil lawsuits alleging misappropriation of money from clients and sexual harassment.
Earlier, Taylor had invoked his right against self-incrimination when responded to the Court of the Judiciary’s charges against him. Taylor’s formal answer to the Court of the Judiciary ws signed only by him, but referred to him in the third person.

Tie Vote Sinks Bill Requiring Popular Election of Judges

As the battle brews over how to pick the state’s most powerful judges, plans to make them earn their seat on the bench through popular elections narrowly failed in a House committee Wednesday, according to TNReport.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-7 on a plan to elect Supreme and appellate court judges, one vote shy of the majority vote necessary to advance the plan in the Legislature. (Note: And with two members absent.)
“I’m disappointed, to say the least,” said bill sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, who contends the current practice flies in the face of the Tennessee Constitution. The constitution says judges of the Supreme, Circuit and Chancery Courts, and other inferior courts “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.”
“The constitution governs how we do business and do public policy in the state,” said Casada, R-Franklin. “To be out of compliance is wrong. If you can’t comply with the most basic, how can you trust us to comply with other parts of the law as well?”
The narrow vote shows there is still distinct division in the GOP-run Legislature over the best way to go about choosing who should sit on the bench in the state’s highest courts.
The measure, HB173, would have required high-ranking judges to face popular elections beginning in August 2014 instead of the yes/no retention elections they now face every eight years.
The Senate considered amendments to the state Constitution earlier Wednesday, but isn’t expected to vote on the plans until next week.
SJR183 would allow the General Assembly to solidify the current practice of the governor appointing judges who later face retention elections, called the Tennessee Plan.
SJR710, on the other hand, would require the governor’s judicial appointments to win approval from the General Assembly. Those judges would also face retention elections to renew their terms.

Compromise Judicial Discipline Bill Clears Legislature

After years of sometimes heated argument, the House quietly sent to the governor Monday night compromise legislation that puts into place a new system for disciplining judges for misdeeds on the bench.
Final approval came on an 88-5 House vote without any debate. The Senate had approved SB2671 unanimously earlier.
Though the votes came with virtually no discussion, the debate over the past three years has included repeated charges that the present Court of the Judiciary ignored judicial misdeeds and operated in unwarranted secrecy. Former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner was offered by critics of the current system as a prime example of its shortcomings.
The bill abolishes the Court of the Judiciary, which was composed of judges and lawyers appointed by the state Supreme Court and the Tennessee Bar Association. In its place, the legislation creates a new 16-member Board of Judicial Conduct, 10 of them judges and six nonjudges. Of the nonjudges, three will be lawyers and three will be “lay persons.”

Continue reading

Bill Revamping Judicial Discipline Board Clears Senate

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A proposal to change the makeup of the entity that investigates complaints against Tennessee judges has passed the Senate.
Republican Sen. Mike Faulk of Kingsport is the primary sponsor of the legislation that was approved 30-0 on Thursday.
The measure would terminate the Court of the Judiciary and replace it with a 16-member board of judicial conduct, which would pretty much have the same function as the court.
Under the proposal, the board must report four times a year to the chief clerk of each legislative chamber, information that includes “complaints opened, closed or pending” and “the number of complaints for which probable cause has been found.”
The companion bill is being scheduled for a vote on the House floor.