published Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell blasts board for dropping complaint against chief justice

NASHVILLE — A powerful state senator has written a letter excoriating the board that disciplines judges for dismissing an ethics complaint against the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Senator Mike Bell's letter to Board of Judicial Conduct Chair Chris Craft comes in the midst of a campaign to unseat three members of the Tennessee Supreme Court who are up for election in August, including Chief Justice Gary Wade. In the letter sent Tuesday, Bell, a Republican, says he was the one who lodged an unofficial complaint to the board that prompted an investigation of Wade.

Bell blasts the board for being "ineffective in disciplining judges and overly secretive in its proceedings." He also said some in the legislature think previous General Assemblies "have enabled an insular culture of cronyism and obfuscation" with both the board that disciplines judges and the panel that evaluates the fitness of appellate court judges.

"There's no such thing as cronyism in the Board of Judicial Conduct," Craft responded, while saying he had not yet seen the letter. "We don't show favorites. We're not for judges or against judges; we just do our job."

The Riceville Republican wanted Wade disciplined for allegedly violating rules about judges lobbying and endorsing candidates after the justice was interviewed in the media defending the work of three appellate judges.

In November, Wade told the Knoxville News Sentinel that he believed appellate court judges Andy Bennett, Camille McMullen and Jerry Smith were doing a good job in spite of not being recommended by a commission that evaluates judges. Wade made his remarks before that same commission came back again and ultimately agreed to recommend Bennett and McMullen after Smith announced his retirement.

Wade did not respond to Bell's letter. However, he sent an email to The Associated Press saying the judicial code of ethics says judges must promote confidence in the judiciary.

"I stand by my comments about the quality of the work of Judges Bennett and McMullen, and I believe it to be my duty as a justice on our Supreme Court to inspire public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary at every opportunity," Wade's statement said.

In an interview, Bell said he felt like Wade's comments were an endorsement that pressured the commission to ultimately reverse itself on the review of the two judges.

The letter says Bell requested the investigation into Wade by meeting with the board's chief disciplinary counsel Timothy Discenza.

"Mr. Discenza and I agreed to keep my identity private so as to limit the impact of a complaint coming from the legislature."

Wade, and Supreme Court justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark are all running to be retained for an eight-year term. All three were appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. The two newly appointed Republican members of Supreme Court will not be on the August ballot. If even one of the justices is not retained it could shift the balance of the court that gets set to name the next state attorney general.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has targeted the three justices and is meeting with business groups and others in an effort to oust them. A bi-partisan group of prominent lawyers and former judges has defended the justices, arguing that millions of dollars from outside the state will be used to buy new members of the state's highest court.

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