Bell said a minor issue is the name “Court of Judiciary” because it is not a court at all, but a 16-member panel of 10 judges, three attorneys and three lay people who may recommend removal, suspension, or other discipline of a judge.
The ad-hoc committee will be comprised of three senators and three state representatives, who have not been named. State Rep. Eric Watson is expected to be appointed due to his position as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Bell said special legislative committee hearings were held last year and found approximately 90 percent of hundreds of complaints lodged annually against judges are dismissed. He said Court of the Judiciary proceedings are not open to the public and reprimands are rarely made publicly available. There have also been reports of shredding documents regarding dismissed cases.
“The Court of the Judiciary as it currently functions is clearly broken,” Bell said. “I’m looking forward to working towards improving the manner in which we keep judges accountable in this state.”
This is the first time there has been a joint committee to look at the court. The senator from Riceville said two of the three senators on the previous committee are no longer in office, so much of their work was lost and will have to be revisited.
Sen. Mae Beavers, chair of the joint committee, brought a bill during the last session of the legislative session which would have reconstituted the court and required increased transparency. Senate Bill 1088 is set to be on the first calendar when the Legislature returns in January 2012.
The Court of the Judiciary was created by the Legislature to investigate and, when warranted, act on complaints against judges. Members are appointed by multiple appointing authorities, including the Supreme Court. The appellate court clerk serves as clerk to the Court of the Judiciary.
The court was created because the Legislature’s only option to reprimand judges is impeachment.
“But, complaints don’t seem to be taken serious by the Court of the Judiciary,” he said. “Problems we hear are of judges who refuse to recuse themselves when there is an obvious conflict of interest.”
Bell said since the court was created by the Legislature, the General Assembly can modify or eliminate it.
“Either way, it’s not going to be an easy task and I welcome hearing from constituents and judges to get a better idea” of their thoughts, he said.