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VOL. 127 | NO. 130 | Wednesday, July 04, 2012

New Judicial Conduct Board Commences

By Bill Dries

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The new Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct will begin its work on the weekend. The board that replaced the old Tennessee Court of the Judiciary effective July 1 holds an organizational meeting Saturday, July 7, in Nashville.

As the Fourth of July holiday neared, the new group that hears allegations of ethics violations by judges was almost complete. The final two appointments were still to be made by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to make a board of 16.

The old court, established in 1979, had been appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The legislation passed this year by the Tennessee Legislature that began July 1 includes appointments by the leaders of both houses of the legislature as well as the governor.

Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, who was presiding judge of the court, called the Saturday session to get the board established enough to resume investigating complaints in the pipeline at the changeover and set the stage for the first regular meeting of the board in August.

Any judicial complaints that were pending as of July 1 will get a new panel to consider them.

One of the first action items on the agenda will be putting disciplinary counsel Tim DiScenza of Memphis back to work.

“He ceased to have a job,” Craft said. “He and our assistant lawyer and an investigator are out of a job and they can’t work on judicial complaints until they are rehired.”

There were dozens of complaints being investigated up to the July 1 transition.

“Then we have to approve our budget and then the chairperson can form the investigative panels and people so that we can start processing the complaints again,” Craft said.

The work will include establishing a set of provisional rules for the board that are to be approved by the legislature sometime in February.

Those appointed to the board serve a term of three years and can be reappointed for one additional term. In addition to Craft, the appointees include State Appeals Court Judge Holly Kirby of Memphis and Madison County General Sessions Court Judge Christy R. Little of Jackson, Tenn.

The legislation setting up the board establishes the burden of proof for investigating a judge as probable cause that misconduct occurred. The previous standard had been a substantial likelihood of misconduct.

The board will make monthly, quarterly and annual reports to the legislature as well as a five-year report.

“If a judge is disciplined and has been disciplined before within a certain period of time, we have to notify the speaker of the House and the speaker of the Senate. There are a lot more notification things we have to do, which is fine with us,” Craft said. “The only change in making things public that were not public before is if a judge commits the same offense again in their term of office then we need to report that. That would be a public reprimand anyway. It would already pretty much be public knowledge.”

The restructuring from the court of the judiciary to a board of judicial conduct also comes with new ethics rules issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Among the new rules is a procedure for pursuing the recusal of a judge, which was one of the goals of Mike Faulk, the Republican state senator from Church Hill, Tenn., who sponsored the judicial conduct board legislation.

“One of the most frequent concerns was that judges did not recuse themselves from hearing a case where there was a conflict of interest or possible bias against one of the parties,” Faulk said in a written statement.

A new ethics rule also requires judges to act if they believe another judge or an attorney is impaired.

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