An Editorial by Senator Mae Beavers / Tennessean / September 23, 2011
The public perception of a judge is often one of dignity and fairness — the ultimate arbiter who always rules on the side of justice. However, to many Tennesseans those black robes represent the opposite of impartiality and fairness.
As our Ad Hoc Joint Committee on the Court of the Judiciary opened hearings this week, we heard from citizens with claims that there are judges who choose to rule and act contrary to their own code of judicial conduct, but yet are accountable to no one. This has led many to believe that these judges are free to rule and act without fear of repercussions.
Our committee heard from citizens from all socioeconomic, racial and cultural walks of life, some who tearfully talked about how they fear their testimony may bring about potential future judicial retaliation. However, these individuals feel our system is broken, and know the legislature is the only body that can fix it so others will not face the same problems in the future.
These types of alleged judicial abuses are what led the legislature to create the Court of the Judiciary in 1979 as a delegated arm of the legislature to investigate judicial misconduct and to recommend possible impeachment or removal. This is a duty bestowed to the legislature by Articles V and VI of the Tennessee Constitution, similar to the separation-of-powers framework in the U.S. Constitution. All three branches of state government operate as checks on one another, a balance of power that usually ensures the most fair and accountable implementation of the law.
Yet, since the legislature enacted the Court of the Judiciary, the result has been a delegation of the legislature’s duty to the very branch of government that we are attempting to monitor. Today, the majority of the Court of the Judiciary is composed of judges appointed by the Supreme Court — “judges appointing judges to judge judges.”
In the Court of the Judiciary’s 32 years, only two judges have been impeached (some who committed felonies were allowed to resign without being prosecuted). Since the first year for which we have statistics, 2006, 92-95 percent of the thousands of complaints filed with the court were dismissed without a formal investigation, including a case where the judge resigned, complaints against him were dismissed, and he was reappointed. This could be due to the fact that only one contract employee is looking into allegations. Another concern shared with committee members relates to the alleged shredding of documents.
In addition, even when a reprimand is given to a judge, it is often private and not subject to public inspection or legislative review; this, even though the legislature is constitutionally directed to monitor the behavior of judges in order to know whether to introduce removal proceedings.
Action to reform the Court of the Judiciary is central to our democratic system of government as laid out in our constitution. One person who has been treated unjustly and who has lost faith in our justice system is too many. We must have full judicial accountability as envisioned by our forefathers. Otherwise, the end result is a system where judges can live in an “beyond-the-law mentality” with no threat of public scrutiny.