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NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Who's Judging The Judges?

Posted: 11:26 PM, May 22, 2017
Updated: 2017-05-23 11:42:12-04
NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Who's Judging The Judges?

When it comes to allegations of misconduct inside the courtroom, who's judging the judges?

That's the question raised by a NewsChannel 5 investigation into a Nashville judge who's repeatedly late for court.

"I don't feel that it was investigated," said White Bluff resident Tommy Craig.

As a self-employed maintenance man, Craig knows the importance of showing up to work on time.

"I have to be there when I say I'll be there," Craig said, noting that if he doesn't show up "they'll get someone else."

But when Craig went to court for a 9 a.m. hearing on a contract dispute last year, he says the judge, Rachel Bell, didn't even show up until 10:30 a.m.

And, right in the middle of his testimony, "She excused me from the witness stand and took a picture with a high school class from Whites Creeks High School."

A bit later, the Davidson County General Sessions judge decided to take another break.

"She announced she was going to take a 15-minute break and didn't come back for an hour and five minutes," Craig said. "We were sitting in the courtroom starving to death. It was almost like a joke."

In fact, a NewsChannel 5 hidden-camera investigation recently showed people waiting inside Bell's courtroom for hours, with the judge not even leaving her house until well over an hour after court was scheduled to start.

Bell blamed her diabetes and a thyroid condition, arguing the Americans with Disabilities Act allows her to adjust her schedule.

"I'm going to need ADA accommodations for the rest of my life until there is a cure," she said.

After Bell ruled against Craig, he filed a complaint with the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.

That's a 17-member group made up of 11 judges, 3 lawyers and 3 members of the public.

Bell's attorney disputed Craig's timetable.

 

Recently, almost a year after he filed his complaint, he received this response saying that "the complaint does not rise to the level that would justify further action."

 

Craig said the Board never even talked to his lawyer.

"I feel like they just sat it on a desk somewhere and put a time/date on it and said we'll send them a dismissal on this date."

State Sen. Mike Bell, a Riceville Republican, insisted "there's just no excuse for a judge habitually showing up late and not just 15 minutes late. We're talking about somebody showing up two hours late."

Bell has been critical of how the Board of Judicial Conduct operates.

He said he knows of one case where it took them two years to appoint a special investigator to review a complaint against a member of the board -- and the case still hasn't been wrapped up.

"When you delay that long," Sen. Bell added, "you delay any hope of that citizen getting justice -- or that citizen having their questions answered."

The head of the board, Shelby County Judge Chris Craft, acknowledged that no one tracks how long it takes to dispose of complaints.

Still, he insisted there isn't a problem.

"We never have any cases that just sit around and nothing is happening on them," Craig said. "We have a lot of complaints and we have to turn them over. We don't let them sit."

Craft explained that, when citizens ask why does justice take so long when judges are involved, "there's not an easy answer because it depends upon the situation."

"Sometimes," he said, "we have issues with health of parties or investigations that have to be done quietly or effectively - and that takes some time to get done."

While Tommy Craig's case was dismissed, we don't know what happened with another complaint involving a man that Judge Bell left locked for almost three weeks -- because she had trouble finding time to hold a hearing for him.

Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn heard an appeal in that case, criticizing Bell for her "cavalier attitude."

Sen. Bell insisted that case cannot be ignored.

"You know, very rarely will one judge speak out against another judge -- in fact, it almost never happens. And when a judge does this, I hope that the Board of Judicial Conduct will take notice."

But here's the other catch: most of the Board of Judicial Conduct's business is conducted in secret.

Which means, even if the Board does weigh in on Judge Bell's conduct in that case, the public may never know.