A federal bankruptcy judge's membership in a country club that has no women or blacks as full-fledged members does not violate the judicial code of conduct, an appeals panel has narrowly ruled.
Several judges strongly dissented, saying it is improper for Judge George Paine II to belong to Belle Meade Country Club because it has a clear record of discrimination.
The club has never had a woman or a black man as a resident member _ the only category in which people are allowed to vote and hold office _ in its 110-year history. Situated in the wealthy Nashville suburb of Belle Meade, the white-columned club with a swimming pool and golf course counts the city's business and legal elite among its 1,000 or so members.
An anonymous woman complained to the appeals court's chief judge in May 2008 that Paine's membership violates a code of conduct that says judges "should not hold membership in any organization that practices invidious discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or national origin."
Paine declined to be interviewed. But in a statement he lamented the corrosive atmosphere in the 6th Circuit and said he was looking forward to his retirement at the end of the year.
Paine has tried unsuccessfully for 15 years to diversify the club's membership, according to a memorandum by the Judicial Council of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati and obtained by The Associated Press. Paine sponsored an African-American for membership at least five years ago, but the club has never acted on it.
The Judicial Council, made up of circuit and district judges in the four-state 6th District, voted 10-8 last month to dismiss the complaint. The memorandum written by Chief Judge Alice Batchelder spends little time discussing the merits of the contention that the Belle Meade County Club discriminates, instead focusing on Paine's unsuccessful campaign to diversify the club.
"The record clearly supports (the) finding that the judge complained of engaged in long and sincere efforts to integrate the club in question. In the majority's view, those efforts preclude a finding that he has engaged in misconduct," she wrote.
An opinion by Circuit Judge Eric Clay, one of four separate written dissents, calls the club's discrimination blatant, the court's investigation amateurish and the majority's interpretation of the code strained. Cole pointed to a section of the conduct code that calls for a judge to resign from a club if it fails to end its discriminatory practices within two years.
Bob Boston, who is identified in court documents as both a former club officer and its representative, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Paine's statement called the dissents on the 6th Circuit, "truly insulting to the experienced African-American trial lawyer who was hired by the Circuit to impartially investigate the circumstances of the complaint and to the multi-sex panel of judges who unanimously adopted her report." An investigative panel adopted the report before it went to the full Judicial Council for a vote.
He also mentioned that the woman who filed the complaint against him never appeared in his court.
Complaints against federal judges rarely result in discipline. According to data on the U.S. Courts website, there were 1,159 complaints concluded during the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, 2010. Not a single one resulted in corrective or remedial action, such as censure, reprimand or suspension of assignments.
Appellate Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. in his dissent praised Paine as a fair and thoughtful judge but says he should have quit the club.
"I am convinced that he personally holds none of the perceived prejudices of the institution of which he remains a member. Belle Meade, however, is a different story," Cole wrote.
"We federal judges must sometimes make sacrifices for the honor of the office we hold, and the judge's membership in Belle Meade should have been one of them."
The council's decision and investigative report were given to AP by Alex Friedmann, an activist whose successful campaign against a candidate for a federal judgeship was partially based on that candidate's Belle Meade Country Club membership. Friedmann helped file the grievance against Paine and the anonymous complainant worked with Friedmann at one time, according to court documents.
An investigation of the club's policies, which the majority of the Judicial Council voted to accept, found that there was conflicting evidence about whether a woman could be a resident member. However, the report ultimately accepted the testimony of Paine and another member that women can fill those roles but have chosen not to because the "lady member" category is less expensive.
Clay's dissent claims the mere existence of a separate, lesser membership category for women is evidence of the club's "blatant" discrimination. His dissent also rejects the club's contention that the African-Americans whose applications have languished haven't been discriminated against because they have not been rejected.
Friedmann said the complainant is considering appealing the Judicial Council's decision.