By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Some attorneys are blasting a proposed piece of legislation in Tennessee’s General Assembly that would take away the state Supreme Court’s administrative powers and give them to the state comptroller’s office.
The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, would also make all Administrative Office of the Courts and Board of Professional Responsibility documents public, according to the Tennessee Bar Association.
Two private attorneys told Tennessee Watchdog that the Board of Professional Responsibility, which has the power to discipline attorneys who the board says act unethically, desperately needs greater accountability.
The two attorneys, Connie Reguli and Jim Roberts, both of whom have a history with the board, said it has become too powerful and vindictive.
As for the overall bill itself, a majority of attorneys have called McNally’s office to complain, he said.
“Of course, they’re against it,” McNally said. “They feel like it’s a separation of powers issue, and the Legislature is going to take control of the judiciary. It’s not really that. We’re simply trying to establish better accountability and better funding.”
McNally’s bill, if passed, would do a variety of things, according to the TBA, and those include sweeping changes to how judges are appointed and the ways in which judicial discipline is carried out.
McNally introduced the bill because of what he calls irregularities in how the AOC makes payments to indigent defense attorneys.
“In the past, there was little done to verify the payments and to make sure they weren’t overbilling and there was also no real system about how those individuals were chosen,” McNally said.
“In Knoxville we had a ‘$500,000 Club’ — individuals who, within a year, received $500,000 within a five-year period from representing indigent people. They came to the Legislature every year to demand more and more money.”
Writing for The Week.com, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen wrote a scathing article condemning McNally’s bill, calling it “the most egregious of this year’s crop of ill-advised measures” of all the state legislatures nationwide.
“It is axiomatic that judges should have the power and authority to administer their own affairs, as they do in every other jurisdiction in the nation, and should not be precluded from evaluating the disciplinary issues that arise within their profession,” Cohen wrote.
“You don’t need to be a political scientist to understand the pressure the executive branch would be able to wield over Tennessee’s judiciary if the Legislature were to enact this bill.”
Too little accountability?
Reguli told Tennessee Watchdog the Board of Professional Responsibility, which can disbar, suspend or publicly censure any lawyer deemed worthy of punishment, has gotten carried away with its powers and needs reigning in.
“There have been retaliatory acts against attorneys and some of these attorneys, who had practiced several years, had somehow angered some judge, so the board started coming after them,” Reguli said.
The board has the power to impose fees, or what Reguli calls taxes, on attorneys, without legislative approval.
Another complaint Reguli makes: The board is able to carry out its investigative, adjudicative and prosecutorial functions in secret.
“In the age of modern technology and e-mails, some of these attorneys across the state who have had issues with the board have connected,” she said.
Reguli, for instance, connected with Roberts.
As Tennessee Watchdog reported in 2010, Roberts testified to a legislative committee that a judge retaliated against him after he asked that judge to recuse himself from a case. The same judge later reported Roberts to the board.
“I only did it because this judge made so many bad decisions and made so many bad comments that I felt like I had an ethical duty to my client to get the hell away from this judge,” Roberts told Tennessee Watchdog.
AOC spokeswoman Michele Wojciechowski told Tennessee Watchdog the board has only suspended one attorney, not Roberts, for actions associated with asking a judge to recuse him or herself.
“In that case, his attempts to force a recusal were inappropriate,” Wojciechowski said, adding she is aware of Reguli’s and Roberts’ complaints.
As for McNally’s proposed legislation, Wojciechowski had little to say.
“Our office has a great deal of respect for Senator McNally and the work that he does, and we’ve had discussions with him about that bill. That would be our comment on that.”
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