Tennessee judiciary and legislature struggle for power over the Court of Judiciary

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June 13, 2011

Tennessee: State Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) is questioning the State Judiciary's actions in preventing a bill that would have given the Tennessee General Assembly complete control over the state's Court of Judiciary appointment process.[1]

Court of Judiciary responsibilities

The Court of Judiciary is charged with investigating complaints filed against judges and determining what disciplinary action, if any, is necessary. Current law states that 10 of the 16 members are appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The proposed bill would reconstitute the Court with 12 members, all of whom would be appointed by the speakers of the House and Senate, and only 5 of whom would be judges.[1]

Complaints filed

There were "344 complaints filed against judges last fiscal year, only 13 resulted in a warning or discipline, and only one of the cases was made public. Nine in 10 cases are dismissed." Court of Judiciary officials explain that most complaints filed are against judges the court has no jurisdiction over or people who are unhappy with the decision the judge handed down. The legislature is charged with impeaching judges who are acting inappropriately. However, because so much of the Court of the Judiciary's records are kept private there is no way for the legislature to determine if a judge needs impeached. Williamson County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Bivins said that judges would be willing to open up records of court proceedings to allow the legislature more direction in regards to impeachment proceedings, yet it was important to keep baseless complaints that are filed from marring a judge's record.[1]

Judiciary influence

Bivins and his contemporaries admit to having spoken with their legislators under the auspice that they too are constituents. The Code of Judicial Conduct not only allows but encourages discussion of matters pertaining to the law, the legal system, and the independence of the judiciary with lawmakers and others. Judges are prohibited from appearing at public hearings of the legislative and executive branches. Beavers has expressed that she has been unable to find lawmakers willing to co-sponsor the legislation because others were under pressure from judges not to do so. She also expressed that she "[T]hought she had the votes until [she] got on the floor and realized the members of the Court of the Judiciary were busy on the phone, and so was the chief justice." Critics of the bill argue that Beavers' changes would attempt to infringe on an independent branch of government as if it were a sub-committee.[1]


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