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NC5 Investigates: General Sessions Court

Tennessee Judges Often Judged in Secret

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Rutherford County Judge Don Ash Rutherford County Judge Don Ash

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For over a year, an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has put the spotlight on judges who abuse their position.

It turns out, some of those judges could have been in trouble before -- but the public might never know.

Judicial officials will tell you that they're doing a good job of keeping Tennessee judges on the straight and narrow, but ethics advocates say they're using a double standard.

When they judge the people who elected them, Tennessee judges do it in open court for the whole world to see.

"Judges are folks just like everybody else," said Rutherford County Judge Don Ash, who is the presiding judge for Tennessee's Court of the Judiciary.

But when the judges are judged, it often occurs behind closed doors.

"We follow completely what the legislature told us to do," Ash told NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams. "And what the legislation says is (a) the investigative part is done behind closed doors."

The Court of the Judiciary is composed of 16 people -- all but three of them lawyers and judges -- who sit in judgment of the ethical conduct of other judges.

"When you decide between a public reprimand or a private reprimand, you're going down through a checklist provided by the legislature?" Williams asked Ash.

"Absolutely, yes, sir," the judge replied.

Earlier this year, NewsChannel 5's cameras were allowed to watch as the Court dealt with administrative matters.

But when it came time for them to discuss their cases, we were asked to leave.

"I don't think anything is done secretively except that investigative part and I don't think that is secretive," Ash said. "I think that is what the legislature told us to do."

The problem: most cases are resolved during that investigative phase.

In the last five years, the Court's own figures show that it has issued 13 public reprimands or censures against Tennessee judges.

But in 102 other cases, judges got away with warnings, reprimands or censures that were kept completely private.

"I like the private reprimand," Ash said. "I think it zooms people in on an issue that they need to get resolved. And I've seen judges where we've issued private reprimands before, I've seen them change their conduct."

But ethics advocates don't buy the need for secrecy.

"If there are problems with the judiciary, the citizens of Nashville-Davidson County deserve to know about them, all of them, in public," said activist Ben Cunningham.

Last year, an advocacy group known as HALT. gave Tennessee a C-minus on how it disciplines judges. It said, "Tennessee rules allow some dysfunctional judges to be sanctioned with a private admonition, and in these circumstances the public never learns of the judge's history of misconduct."

"I don't know how HALT would know that dysfunctional judges are allowed to continue with just private reprimands," Ash said.

Williams responded, "If matters are being resolved in private, no one really knows."

"That's what the legislature told us to do," Ash continued. "We just didn't come up with this on our own. We're following the legislature mandate to do these private type things."

After our investigation caught General Sessions Judge Gale Robinson working a second job as a funeral director when he was supposed to be on the bench, he received a private reprimand.

Still, Robinson volunteered to release it, saying voters have a right to know.

"My life's an open book," Robinson told Williams at the time. "When I ask the folks to entrust me and elect me, then I deserve to be scrutinized."

Ash said, "That's his choice. But right now we are bound by these rules and I'm going to follow what the legislature told us to do."

Until that law's changed, Ash says people should trust that justice is being done being those closed doors.

In the last year or so, the Court has issued more public reprimands. (Here's a link to the court's website.)

Judge Ash says cases are made public if it becomes clear that a judge has a history of misconduct or if he/she just isn't taking the necessary steps to fix the problems.

If voters want to know about those private reprimands, Ash said they should contact their state lawmakers. They made the law, and they have the power to change it.

email: pwilliams@newschannel5.com

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