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Photo contributed by the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts / Coffee County General Sessions Judge Jere Ledsinger

A Coffee County General Sessions judge was publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct in a letter last week over a comment he made in front of several defendants, some of whom were African American.

The board's Sept. 28 letter of reprimand sent to Judge Jere Ledsinger refers to a remark he made in regard to the Tennessee Supreme Court's orders that masks be worn in court in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The board's letter signed by chairperson Dee David Gay states that Ledsinger on July 16 told the courtroom audience,"'the Grand Wizard of our Supreme Court said we have to wear these masks,' or words to the effect."

Ledsinger could not be reached Monday for comment on the reprimand, nor could Public Defender John E. Nicoll or 14th District Attorney General Craig Northcott, the latter two of whom are court officials who work on either side of criminal cases before Ledsigner's bench. Officials in Northcott's office said all three men were working a long day in General Sessions Court on Monday.

Although Ledsinger couldn't be reached Monday, he did respond to board officials in August. Ledsinger is one of two general sessions judges in Coffee County.

The board decided to impose a public reprimand, which Ledsinger accepted, according to the letter. The board said that in imposing the sanction, the panel considered that Ledsinger acknowledged the problem and fully cooperated.

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State of Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct letter to Coffee County General Sessions Judge Jere Ledsinger

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Addressing Ledsinger, the board's Sept. 28 letter states, "you admitted that you made the statement, explaining that your words were intended to 'soften any resistance by those present in the courtroom to the requirements of wearing a mask, as we have had negative feedback to this [Supreme Court] mandate.'"

The board said the "inappropriate comment" led to the opening of a full investigation on Sept. 5 and was followed by a notice sent Sept. 8 to Ledsinger saying the probe was underway.

Gay wrote in the letter that Ledsinger also had a telephone conversation Sept. 23 with the board's disciplinary counsel to discuss the matter.

"During this conversation, you acknowledged the perception problem with your comment and reiterated your regret in making it," the letter to Ledsinger states. "You emphasized that the comment was spontaneous and that you intended no disrespect."

The board admonished Ledsinger on how such comments cloud perceptions of the judicial system.

"Comments like the one at issue undermine public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the legal process, especially for those persons who, after hearing an insensitive comment from the judge, have their cases adjudicated by that judge," Gay wrote. "Such persons may reasonably question whether they received impartial and unbiased treatment even though, as here, there is nothing to suggest bias or prejudice in any case."

The letter specifically noted that defendants in the courtroom were African American. The term 'grand wizard' is a title in the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan.

The board also said Ledsinger's comment impugned the higher court.

"While there is no evidence to doubt your assertion that you had no intent to cast aspersions on any member of the Tennessee Supreme Court or anyone else, those who heard you comment have no way of determining your intent apart from the words used," the letter states. "Once such comments are made, the damage is done."

"[C]omments such as the one involved here, even if made off-the-cuff and with no intent to be offensive, reflect an ethical lapse that undermines public confidence that our judges are unbiased in fact and in appearance," Gay wrote in concluding the letter. "The Board trusts that the reprimand imposed today will result in an elevated consciousness about how to approach this and similar situations going forward."

Complaints filed with the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct are confidential and privileged during the preliminary investigation stage, according to board information on how to file a judicial complaint.

Complaints are reviewed by a disciplinary counsel, which then sends them to a three-member investigative panel to determine whether to investigate further. The complaint could be dismissed if there were no grounds shown for judicial misconduct.

If the information indicates misconduct, if true, the disciplinary counsel will conduct a preliminary investigation, which could lead to authorization of a full investigation.

A full investigation requires the judge to respond in writing and, once that investigation is complete, the panel may dismiss the case; recommend a disciplinary action, such as a private or public reprimand or a deferred discipline agreement with the judge; refer the case to another agency such as the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or file formal, public charges.

Formal charges could lead to a public trial in front of a five-member hearing panel made up of members of the Board of Judicial Conduct, according to the state board complaint information.

The board took action earlier this year in another judicial district.

The board in August disciplined two 12th Judicial District judges, Circuit Court Judge Curtis Smith and Bledsoe County General Sessions Judge Howard Upchurch. In that matter, the disciplinary action administered did not rise to the level of a public reprimand, but some lesser level of discipline the board is not required to make public.

Ledsinger, a Democrat, has held the General Sessions judge post in Coffee County for 16 years, winning his most recent term in 2018 by a 400-vote margin over Republican challenger Jason Huskey, according to reports in the Tullahoma News newspaper in Coffee County.

READ MORE:

Judges disciplined after complaints filed amid Bledsoe couple's divorce

Rhea County judge reprimanded for comment, language

North Georgia judge reprimanded

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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