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VOL. 35 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 7, 2011

Beavers builds case around conduct of Tennessee judges

By Kathleen Carlson

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It took a budget shortfall in the Wilson County school system and her husband knocking on doors to get Mae Beavers elected the first time.

Now, 21 years after winning that election for seat on the county commission, the Republican state senator from Mt. Juliet has carved out a niche in the Tennessee Legislature dealing with the courts, the cost of government and the relative roles of state versus federal government.

Beavers has been making headlines recently in her role as co-chair of a joint legislative panel on the Court of the Judiciary, a state agency with oversight over the conduct of Tennessee judges.

“It’s wrong that you have so many judges appointing judges that are judging judges,” she says. “The oversight is supposed to be by the Legislature. We’re the only ones with impeachment power but we can’t get information to know whether the Court of the Judiciary is doing its job or not” or whether judges are doing their jobs properly.

Beavers has long been interested in the court system, having worked as a legal secretary, paralegal and, for 15 years, as a court reporter. When she was first elected to the state legislature in 1994, she had completed two years of law school. She says her husband still encourages her to get her law degree.

Along with co-chair Rep. Eric Watson and others on the Ad Hoc Committee on the Court of the Judiciary, Beavers recently heard from judges and citizens for two days. Many laypersons, she says, testified about situations in which they believed judges should have recused themselves from hearing their cases but did not.

“We had testimony … where some law partner who had represented them ended up being the judge,” Beavers says. “It was just crazy. Your heart just goes out to some of these people who testified,” she continues. “I mean they’ve practically been bankrupted, their lives ruined and retaliated against by judges.”

The Court of the Judiciary’s most recent annual report (for July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2011) shows 359 complaints were opened and 334 closed. All but 20 of the closed cases were dismissed. Of those 20, nine involved public reprimand for the judge, six involved private reprimands, three resulted in deferred discipline for the judge and two were classified simply as “other,” with no explanation.

Beavers says she is concerned about the “other” classification. The previous four years of Court of Judiciary reports show 41 complaints in that category. She is trying to find out just what “other” means.

The report classifies the types of complaints in broad terms, such as prejudice, discourtesy or delay. Many complaints claim that the judge didn’t follow the law, which may be grounds for an appeal but not for a complaint to the Court of the Judiciary, two judges told the joint committee.

Other then when a judge receives a public warning, there’s no way to tell from the report what led to lesser types of discipline because of the Court of the Judiciary’s confidentiality rules.

That bothers Beavers as well. “I have real doubts that we should keep anything private” about judicial discipline, she says. “No other public official can.”

Memphis Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, recently chosen as presiding judge of the Court of the Judiciary, says the body functions well and is trying to share as much information as possible. Ten judges appointed by the state Supreme Court, three lawyers chosen by the state bar, and three laypersons serve on the body. The governor, Senate speaker and House speaker each pick one layperson.

Many complaints that get dismissed were filed in error by people who thought they could appeal the outcome of their cases to the Court of the Judiciary, Craft says. He and Beavers agree that the name of the body should be changed to reflect its true function – policing the ethics of judges – and to prevent confusion.

But Beavers and Craft part ways over how much privacy judges should receive when their ethics and conduct are questioned. Craft believes in giving judges a chance to clean up their act on their own before receiving public censure. Beavers is not convinced.

“I’m a social conservative,” she says. “I believe that government should be open.”

The ad hoc committee has adjourned, continues to research the issues and might have legislation to introduce when the Legislature returns in January, she says.

Beavers says her political philosophy mirrors her and her husband’s personal philosophy: “You pay as you go and you don’t charge up a lot of debt; that’s the way we live and it’s kind of transferred” into political life.

She opposes federal mandates such as the 2009 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, and pushed for Tennessee to opt out of federal health care reform through a health care compact. She has supported a firearms freedom measure, sponsored a bill that makes it a crime to kill or injure a fetus, and helped lower the blood-alcohol level for drunk driving to 0.08 percent from 0.10 percent.

“I think she is very diligent in her work,” says Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto. She stays on top of what she starts, 24-7. … I think she has a great passion for the state and its citizens to do what’s best for them.”

Jobs are the main issue facing lawmakers these days, she says. “If you take a lot of the regulations and taxes off of business, that will” help create jobs.

“I consider myself pretty much a libertarian Republican, except I don’t go to the extent that we should legalize drugs,” she says. “I believe in the freedoms we have been given in this country. We need to guard those freedoms.”

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