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
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.