Sharp Exchanges Mark Senate Hearing About Chief Justice

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Sharp Exchanges Mark Senate Hearing About Chief Justice

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jun 24, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There were sharp exchanges Tuesday as senators heard allegations of misconduct against Tennessee top judge.

Those accusations come from Republicans who want to see Chief Justice Gary Wade and two other Supreme Court justices voted out in August.

Republicans insisted the four hour hearing was not about politics. 

But, with control of the state's high court up for grabs, politics were never far away.

"This committee has been called to determine if illegal politicking ... have put at risk the very fabric of the structure that keeps our government and our civil liberties secure," said Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma.

Critics have accused Wade of trying to influence a commission that evaluates Tennessee appellate judges and makes a recommendation to voters on whether they should be retained.

"I don't recall a single comment that I received from the chief justice or any justices on the Supreme Court," said Republican lawyer Joseph Woodruff, who served on that commission.

Woodruff testified there were concerns about comments Wade made to a Knoxville newspaper criticizing a preliminary vote to give negative recommendations to three appellate justices.

"It was probably not a very wise thing for the chief to have done," he told the senators. "It certainly did not influence my vote one way or the other."

Woodruff said he did hear from plenty of other members of the legal community after the commission's preliminary vote.

"What you just described is the very definition of politics," said Senate Government Operations Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

Still, the chair of the Board of Judicial Conduct, which polices Tennessee justices, told lawmakers it wasn't clear that what Wade said actually violated an ethics rule against judges endorsing candidates for public office.

"It's really unclear what the definition of 'endorse' is," said Judge Chris Craft.

It was an answer that some Republicans didn't like.

"Based on the testimony today, there's a perception that the chief justice is protecting the appellate judges from negative criticism and that the Board of Judicial Conduct is protecting the chief justice," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.

Those comments prompted this reaction from the lawyer hired to investigate Tennessee judges.

"The only person from the Board that was here said nobody contacted me -- that's the only information we've got, there's nothing to investigate," said Tim Discenza, a former federal prosecutor who was responsible for putting several Democratic lawmakers in federal prison.

All of that led to a sports analogy from a leading Democrat on the committee, who suggested Republicans are just upset that an ethics complaint that Chairman Bell himself filed against the chief justice did not end the way they wanted.

"Y'all just arguing the call," said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis. "You're saying the ball was out of bounds. They ruled it was in bounds. You're just arguing the call."

Republicans clearly thought they had scored points with testimony that the results of a preliminary vote by that evaluation commission may have been leaked to the chief justice.

But that was second-hand information.

Plus, there were questions about whether the vote was really confidential by law, and there was no testimony that Wade passed that information along to anyone else.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
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Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team.

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