Judicial oversight hearings raise questions of independence, fairness

Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 9:05pm

Emissaries from the state’s judiciary went before the legislature last week in the hopes of calming their critics and quelling a conservative populist uprising.

They were brought before an ad hoc oversight committee, then subjected to a parade of witnesses who were outraged by what they claimed was ill-treatment at the hands of judges.

The ostensible purpose of the two-day hearing was to consider whether the Republican-run legislature should seize control of the Court of the Judiciary, the 16-member commission responsible for investigating ethics complaints against judges.

But in the grand tradition of special hearings, this one seemed more about embarrassing a political nemesis than about contemplating good-government reforms. 

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, introduced legislation in this year’s session that would have handed the power to appoint the Court of the Judiciary to the House and Senate speakers. In the face of heavy lobbying by judges, that bill stalled. Currently, the Supreme Court names most of the commission’s members. That’s a blatant conflict of interest, according to detractors who contend the Court of the Judiciary is letting judges do as they please.

Although no votes were taken, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the ad hoc committee fully supported Beavers’ bill. In a brief discussion about the legislation, no one suggested any opposition or raised any questions about separation of powers or other important issues at stake in the debate.

Social conservatives, who dominate the panel, have made a mantra out of railing against liberal activist judges. For years, as a way to rein in the appellate courts, they have tried to change state law to end judges’ hard-to-lose yes/no elections and make them run in competitive campaigns. 

The more judges are seen as imperious and out of control, the better the odds of forcing them to answer to voters in contested elections.

Judges say their independence and integrity is threatened and claim their foes are trying to intimidate the judicial branch to produce more conservative rulings on social issues ranging from the death penalty to abortion.

Beavers, who co-chairs the ad hoc committee, opened the hearings with a disclaimer. No matter what the news media tell you, she said, “This is not about retention elections and it’s not about being conservative or liberal. This is about accountability to the body that has the responsibility for the oversight of the judiciary according to the constitution.”

The first witness quickly contradicted her. The politician-turned-gadfly John Jay Hooker almost immediately launched into a diatribe against yes/no elections and judges. Waving a copy of the constitution, which he claims prohibits retention elections, the 81-year-old Hooker challenged lawmakers “man to man.”

“I’m here this morning to plant the flag that until you do something about that, you will have turned your back on the very constitution that you swore to uphold,” Hooker said.

His ire rising, Hooker went on to tell how he believes judges have mistreated him. His law license was suspended for filing frivolous lawsuits, and when he appealed, the Supreme Court justices refused to recuse themselves. He complained to the Court of the Judiciary, only to be dismissed out of hand. The commission is “almost like the Gestapo,” he said.

“They thumbed their nose at me,” Hooker said. “The Court of the Judiciary is in the whitewash business. They ought to get a pair of overalls and a brush. They are expert whitewashers. They whitewashed my case, and they whitewashed some of the cases of the people who have come here to stand with me this morning, these other people who have been abused and hurt.”

The rest of the testimony was the same litany of conspiracy theories and grudges over lawsuits gone wrong. A couple of self-proclaimed “whistleblowers” claimed they had been framed.

“She called me everything but a white woman,” one tearful witness said, dabbing at her eyes with tissue as she complained about rough treatment from a judge in her divorce case.

Lawmakers generally played the role of sympathetic enablers and occasionally demanded answers from the Court of the Judiciary’s presiding judge, Chris Craft, who patiently tried to explain there are a lot of unfounded complaints against judges.

Craft insisted the commission “isn’t sweeping anything under the rug,” but lawmakers said they find it hard to believe that so few judges ever deserve discipline.  Last year, the commission dismissed 314 of 334 cases, and its disciplinary counsel tossed another 181 complaints on his own authority without so much as a preliminary investigation.

Craft said those complaints were dismissed because they are absurd. He cited one 60-pager from an “inmate off his psychotropic medication,” one from a mother complaining about the judges in her daughter’s beauty pageant, and yet another from a crackpot demanding that the commission unseat U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people in litigation, they can’t blame themselves or the other side, so they blame the judge, and things get heated,” Craft said.

In the past 20 years, 5,193 complaints have been filed, but there have been only eight suspensions of judges, 31 public censures or reprimands, and 46 private actions. Five judges have been recommended for removal since 1978. The last time that happened was 11 years ago.

Lawmakers are critical of private reprimands in particular.  “I don’t think any of us like false accusations,” Beavers said, “but we have to give the public credit to sort all of this out when it comes to election time. If it’s not anything serious, then the public will recognize that.  But if it is something serious, the public deserves to know.”

But Craft said even good judges sometimes make mistakes, and public reprimands would sully their reputations unnecessarily.

“I don’t care who you are, everybody has had a bad day,” he said, reciting a few cases in which judges legitimately could claim extenuating
circumstances.

One judge had only just learned her husband was having an affair when she snapped and made a rude remark to a litigant, he said. Another was behind on his cases because he was helping out a colleague who was sick with cancer. Another judge “was intemperate” on the bench because his son had been killed the week before, Craft said.

“Just because we’re public officials, I’m not sure we need to have every one of our bad days in the media,” he said. “We’re not trying to protect the judge. It just does not serve the public to air all that laundry as long as it’s been cleaned and it’s not dirty.”

Many witnesses pointed out Craft seemed overly eager to protect judges from negative publicity, and lawmakers gave no indication that they were swayed by his arguments. One vocal critic of judges — Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville — raised the possibility of abolishing the Court of the Judiciary altogether and replacing it with a panel of legislators.

Beavers said she wants to think about whether her bill is tough enough. Naming one possible change, she said she’d like to think about requiring that all complaints against judges be made public.

“This is just a beginning point,” Beavers told the committee.   

13 Comments on this post:

By: pswindle on 9/25/11 at 11:53

Are some of the Judges appointed by democrats? Is that the problem?

By: Kosh III on 9/26/11 at 7:30

Beavers and the GOP want one party rule over all aspects of government with no separation of powers. They care nothing about justice or the Constitution, just power and money for themselves and their corporate owners.

By: Moonglow1 on 9/26/11 at 8:30

Moonglow1: Mike Bell's proposal is outrageous (to abolish the Court of the Judiciary and replace them with a panel of legislators). How would that move protect the rights of our citizens to have due process under the law. Why would I want a panel of tea nuts deciding anything. And here we go again with Mae Beavers. Last year she waa all about the Obama birth certificate nonsense. Now this year she is a champion of replacing the judiciary with tea legislatures. What a crack pot.

By: TonyGottlieb on 9/26/11 at 8:31

I so hate to interupt Woods' fiction writing with the facts but twice gubernatorial nominee John Jay Hooker and Joint sub-Committee member Sen.Ophelia Ford & Rep. Eddie Bass are Democrats.

By: easttennthinker on 9/26/11 at 8:34

I agree wholeheartedly with Kosh III. It is all about power. The Constitution set up three branches of government for this very reason, to keep one group of people from taking control of all three branches. But there are people out there who seem to think that we need to follow the Constitution only when it suits their agenda. Do they want every little thing that they do reported to the public? Do they want it reported everytime they fail to call one of their constituents in a timely manner? Do they want it in the news everytime they are falsely accused of being on drugs because someone asks them to propose a bill that they totally disagree with or that they think is against public interest. Would they not prefer to take a drug test and clear their name and keep that complaint secret? What if they were accused of DUI and it was someone with the same name and not them. Would they want that complaint reported to the media or would they rather have it investigated first and their name cleared. You know there would be people out there who would never believe it was not you. There are people who are all to quick to believe teh worst of people. Does the legislature not have enough to deal with already? It seems to me that you have plenty to keep you busy like trying to balance your budget.

By: pswindle on 9/26/11 at 9:00

John Jay Hooker has not been a democrat since he lost the governorship way back when. He is a litle frayed around the corners. The others that you mentioned , just need a little attention. I can'st understand why the people of TN keep electing the likes of Mae Beaver, just to name a few of self-serving destructive individuals.

By: Vandylawstudent on 9/26/11 at 10:12

How does the City Paper continue to let Jeff Woods write these horrible opinion pieces...the article would actually be decent if he began at the second half of the piece, yet once again Woods has to weave in his TN Plan/conservative takeover of the judiciary nonsense.

Just because you dislike the GOP, doesn't take away the fact that most of these complaints ARE AGAINST ELECTED TRIAL JUDGES (not against the TN Plan appellate or Supreme Court Justices)

Granted, Hooker seemed to bring the Supreme Court into the picture, but it seems like the majority of the other witnesses in the hearing were women and even minorities (I doubt they were Republicans)...keep the conversations separate, the TN Plan stuff is going no where; this is about accountability of the judiciary who abuse their power in regards to individual civil and criminal cases (not about ideological rulings like abortion and the death penalty, as Woods likes to accuse in every article that he writes)...Woods should go interview Democrat caucus leader Turner who carried the bill to reform the Court of the Judiciary for the past 10 years and ask him if it is about abortion or the death penalty.

If the City Paper is going to keep printing articles like this, they should just put the "Nashville Scene" title on their magazine, because this piece was insulting to any reader with an ounce of intelligence.

By: govskeptic on 9/26/11 at 10:17

Mr Chris Craft's excuses for the conduct of this Board and the poor examples
given were truly laughable. While certainly a separate branch of our government,
this is only a part of the " empire" from the top (Tenn Supreme Court) to being the
issuer and only body that can remove an attorney's license no matter the
conduct and every step of the Judiciary in between. Change to the Missouri Plan
for electing Judges took place under Gov Dunn who has since stated he made
a big mistake in being persuaded to support it. John Jay is exactly correct in that
portion of his argument before the legislators!

By: stevebest2 on 9/26/11 at 11:48

I had a problem last week with Judge Gloria Dumas!!! You know the judge that was charged with blowing off court and Nepotism charges because she got her daughter a cushy government job?? I was trying to plead my case on a ticket and she lost her temper and had the bailiff remove me!!! He treated me like I just ran over his dog and said "Now you're just going to pay them" and I said "NO! I have a right to plea my case " and he said I didn't!!!"
I guess "her honor" was still mad because she had better things to do than her job and recently has to pay and undisclosed amount for her settlement with the state!!!!!! Gloria Dumas NEEDS to be REMOVED for what anyone else would be FIRED for!!!!!!!!!!

By: Nitzche on 9/26/11 at 12:01

Judge Dumas is a good Judge

By: Jack Straw on 9/27/11 at 10:18

Chris Craft is not the problem. I know him well, have practiced before him, and he is one very well-liked and well-respected Criminal Court judge here in Memphis. I have a lot of faith in him as the head of the Court of the Judiciary. He's a straight shooter.

Besides, he JUST got appointed to this position a COUPLE OF WEEKS ago. Judge Craft is NOT the problem.

But there ARE two problems here.

1) Right-wingers want to do away with retainage elections for appellate judges, so they can run a right-wing yahoo to inflame the goobers and intimidate any judge who might make a ruling against what the right-wingers call "popular sovereignty" -- ie, the public's will replaces the law of the land.. This is a shameless ideological power play by the Right, and should be seen as nothing but that.

2) The problematic judges, the ones the public encounters, maybe 5% of judges at most, are at the TRIAL level. We have two WOWSERS here in Memphis. We had a third one until recently,, a right-wing White male, but thankfully he retired. He was a terror and a true sociopath. But we still have two dull-witted, afrocentric, buffoon women judges who apply court rules WHEN and IF they see fit, and whose prejudice against males, Whites, and Hispanics are as plain as the nose on your face -- and Judge Craft knows exactly who I'm talking about.

The legislature needs to make it easier for attorneys to ask these prejudiced judges to recuse themselves -- without fear of reprisal by those judges. Now a judge can retaliate any way he or she wants to against a lawyer who has requested a recusal. Lawyers ARE intimidated by these judges.

I am sure there are bad judges with different ethnic characteristics in other parts of the state -- I identify these two women by ethnicity and gender only so everyone who's in the know will know exactly whom I'm talking about.

We need reforms, we need uniformity of court rules in a given county, accountability by judges to follow THEIR OWN court rules, but we don't need to do away with retention elections for appellate judges, who are NOT the problem.

And we need stronger means of dealing with rogue trial court judges, like the two we have in Memphis.

By: nashmusic2244 on 9/27/11 at 6:06

Judges should be held accountable from the start. For the Supreme Court to appoint COJ members and judges to police themselves is absurd.

Create a transparent board of citizen activists who will uphold integrity and ensure the judiciary is fair, impartial and held to standards. Then start of the BOPR to reign in unethical lawyers.

Eddie Garcia

By: John Acree on 9/27/11 at 8:00

Hear hear, Vandylawstudent!! You're right on target.

Judge Craft may be honorable man, but he comes up here and talks about the most tepid and ridiculous cases.

The lay citizens who were at the hearing are concerned about serious criminal actons by judges instituted by judicial fiat. We're talking about such things as kidnapping, theft or conversion of assets, and slow murder (allowing elderly to be held against their will in nursing homes and drugged, etc.). Collusion with attornyes in their courtrooms, etc.

John Jay Hooker is exactly correct that the judiciary has the authority to oversee judges, and what's more, they have the RESPONSIBILITY to do so.

Judges overseeing judges has not worked. Sen. Beavers' proposals to open all complaints to public scrutiny and to appoint COJ members from the legislature itself is called "going in the right direction".

The hearings were positive for Tennesseans. Now let's start removing some of the criminal judges.