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Senator Calls Hearing Over His Own Ethics Complaint Against Chief Justice

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Senator Calls Hearing Over His Own Ethics Complaint Against Chief Justice

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jun 3, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -  A powerful state senator is turning up the heat in a campaign to seize Republican control of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, announced he will hold hearings into the ethical conduct of one of the judges he'd like to see defeated.

Two weeks ago, NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed that Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey was wrong when he told reporters that Chief Justice Gary Wade had been reprimanded.

Tuesday, Bell - who shares an apartment here in Nashville with Ramsey - said he wants to use his committee to investigate why the chief justice was not reprimanded as a result of a complaint that Bell himself filed against the state's top judge.

Bell called a news conference to announce that he would convene hearings into why a complaint that he filed against Chief Justice Gary Wade did not result in a reprimand from the board that polices Tennessee's judges.

Wade is one of three Democratic appointees who face a yes-no vote in August over whether they should be retained, and Bell has been openly critical of those justices.

"This is a very, very important issue when the integrity of a third branch of government, which is the judicial branch, is called into question," Bell told reporters.

At issue are comments that Wade made to a Knoxville newspaper in defense of three other appellate judges.

At the time, they were being evaluated by a state body known as the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.

Even though none of those judges had filed formal declarations of candidacy to appear on the ballot, Bell argued those comments violated an ethics rule that prohibits judges from publicly endorsing any candidate for public office.

But the chief justice told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he was not suggesting how voters should vote.

"I was called upon to ask about the work product of our judges and when that work product is good it seems to me that the role of the chief justice requires a positive comment," Wade said recently.

In fact, as NewsChannel 5 first reported, the former career prosecutor in charge of policing Tennessee judges did not believe Wade's comment broke the rules. Timothy Discenza is a former federal prosecutor who sent several Democratic lawmakers to federal prison.

Based on Discenza's recommendation, the state's Board of Judicial Conduct dismissed Bell's complaint.

It was a decision that, the Senate chairman later admitted, did not sit well with him personally.

"When I look at the language of the judicial code of ethics, I think it's plain and simple -- I think he violated it," Bell told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Bell volunteered that he also disagrees with several court rulings that have found Tennessee's current system of electing appellate judges is constitutional.

But former Sen. Joe Haynes, himself a lawyer, said Bell's plans to hold hearings over the handling of his own complaint is nothing but intimidation.

"It's an attempt to intimidate, and it's a bad idea," the Goodlettsville Democrat said. "I think we need to let the judicial branch take care of administering their own discipline and the legislature needs to leave them alone."

While Bell told reporters it's important that such questions be ironed out before the August election, he still insisted it's not political.

"Whether it reflects negatively on the sitting Supreme Court justice or not, that will be up to the people to decide," he said.

Some members of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, in their evaluation of Wade, expressed concern that the chief justice's comments may have crossed the line. Still, they voted 9-0 that he should be retained.

The campaign for the three incumbent justices released statements, two of them from Republican lawyers, suggesting that politics is indeed behind Senator Bell's effort.

“Efforts to politicize Tennessee’s Supreme Court are counter to what the people of our state want and deserve: a fair and impartial court,” said Edward M. Yarbrough, former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. He was appointed by President George W. Bush.
 
Added retired U.S. District Judge Robert Echols, “It is okay to debate these issues as long as they are not motivated by partisan intentions or retaliation because of some special interest group or legislator who dislikes the result of legal decisions.” He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
 
Keep Tennessee Courts Fair campaign manager Brenda Gadd added, “Politics are intended for the politicians in our Legislature, not our Supreme Court. We intend to ensure that our people have what our Tennessee Constitution provides: a fair and impartial Supreme Court.”

But the chair of the board that polices the ethics of Tennessee judges told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he will fully cooperate with Bell's hearings.

"The Board of Judicial Conduct is strictly a creation of the legislature and, if anything I have to say would be of help to them in discharging their legislative duties, I would be glad to cooperate," Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft said.
 
Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.