BY JOHN M. JONES JR.
Third Judicial District Circuit Court Judge John K. Wilson has been given a formal public censure and a formal public reprimand by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.
The Board, a division of the Tennessee Supreme Court, issued the public censure and the separate public reprimand on Thursday.
The Board has responsibility, under the state Supreme Court, for overseeing the conduct of Tennessee state judges, including state circuit judges.
Through a spokesperson, Judge Wilson declined comment on the rulings Friday afternoon.
The censure was issued in connection with Judge Wilson's conduct in legal matters relating to Greeneville attorney John T. Milburn Rogers and his law firm over a period of years and particularly in late 2011 and early 2012, although the Board's news release did not identify Rogers or his law firm by name.
The reprimand was issued in connection with an entirely different case, in which the legal issue was a parental custody matter.
Rogers said in an interview Friday afternoon that he did not file the complaint against Judge Wilson resulting in the censure and did not know who had filed it.
He also said he had no connection whatsoever with the custody case which resulted in the public reprimand and, in fact, had no idea what it was or who was involved.
He noted that, in his law practice, he does not handle custody matters.
RESULT OF SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT
Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, of Memphis, chairperson of the Board of Judicial Conduct, said in a telephone interview on Friday that the public censure and public reprimand were the result of a settlement agreement concerning two separate complaints that had been filed against Judge Wilson.
Since the rulings were the result of a settlement agreement rather than a formal trial procedure, Judge Craft said, the details of the complaint, the party or parties who filed the complaint, the specific cases involved in the complaints, etc., were confidential.
He explained that the Board of Judicial Conduct has several choices for disciplinary action in cases where the Board believes that disciplinary action is merited.
The disciplinary options include: a private reprimand; a public reprimand; a private censure; a public censure; suspension of the judge; or, the most serious, the filing of proceedings with the Tennessee General Assembly to try to have the judge removed from office.
Only the legislature can remove a judge from office.
Judge Craft said that state law requires that Judge Wilson present himself before the Board, adding that that will occur at the Board's August meeting in Nashville, but no action related to the case is anticipated.
The issuance of the notice of public censure and public reprimand essentially brings the case to an end, Judge Craft said.
In accordance with Judicial Board policy, he made no comment on the case apart from explaining the Board's standard procedures and certain legal terms.
Otherwise, he said, the written public statement issued Thursday stands as the Board's only statement on the matter.
TEXT OF LETTER
The statement by the Board of Judicial Conduct, which was addressed to Judge Wilson and signed by Judge Craft in his capacity as Board Chair, said:
"This letter shall serve as a Public Censure in Case #12-4950 and a Public Reprimand in Case #12-4953 pursuant to your agreement with an investigative panel of the Board of Judicial Conduct.
"In this case you hereby receive a Public Censure for the following matters:
"1. Your conduct during your attendance at a deposition held Dec. 27, 2011, which was intemperate, argumentative, disruptive and not in conformity with acceptable judicial conduct.
"2. Your failure to adhere to and abide by a resolution previously reached in the Court of the Judiciary following complaints filed against you in the Court of the Judiciary, Nos. 96-244 and 97-549. In those matters, you received a partially deferred discipline agreement, a private admonishment and were required to refrain from certain conduct in the future.
"Specifically, Agreed Discipline included the warning that you shall 'cease and desist from any injudicious treatment...' directed at or to a particular law firm.
"You have failed to adhere to and abide by that Agreed Discipline.
"3. Your failure to abide by your deferred discipline agreement covered in Item #2, above, resulted in the Tennessee Supreme Court's decision of Bean v. Bailey, 280 S.W. 3d 798 (Tenn. 2009), in which the Court held that because of the animosity which you continued to exhibit to the attorney that was named in the Agreed Discipline, the case was required to be transferred to another judge.
"4. Your failure to follow either the letter or the spirit of the Supreme Court determination in Bean v. Bailey following its issuance, continuing into early 2012 with respect to recusal in certain matters and cases in your court.
"In this matter, you hereby receive a Public Reprimand due to an improper ex parte hearing and improper ex parte relief granted with respect to a petition to modify a permanent parenting plan filed by the attorney for a litigant.
"Your actions in the above matter constituted a violation of Canon 1 as it existed at the time of the incidents described above, which requires that 'A Judge Shall Uphold the Integrity and Independence of the Judiciary'; Canon 2A, stating that 'A judge shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a matter that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary'; Canon 3 stating that "A Judge Shall Perform the Duties of Judicial Office Impartially and Diligently'; and Canon 3 B (7) stating that "A judge shall not initiate, permit or consider ex parte communications, or consider other communications made to the judge outside the presence of the parties concerning a pending or impending proceeding...'
"Your conduct in addition violated the provisions of the Tennessee Code Annotated Section 17-5-30(g)(2) in that this conduct 'detrimentally affects the integrity of the judiciary.'
"Accordingly, this letter constitutes both a Public Censure and a Public Reprimand for your actions in the above situations."
The reference in the censure to a deposition on Dec. 27, 2011, makes it clear that that matter related to a proceeding in which Rogers had scheduled depositions in support of an effort to persuade Judge Wilson to recuse himself from all cases in which he or other members of his law firm were representing clients.
In a highly unusual step, Judge Wilson ordered that the depositions be taken in open court, with himself presiding. The Greeneville Sun covered the hearing and wrote a news story about it.
Wilson and Rogers have frequently clashed since the early 1980s, and, because of the obvious tension between them, Rogers made numerous efforts over the years to persuade Judge Wilson to recuse himself from cases involving Rogers or his firm.
Judge Wilson consistently refused to do so, stating that he could deal fairly with cases in which parties were represented by Rogers or his associates, and that he had in fact done so.
In early January 2012, however, after the Dec. 27 deposition hearing and a tense follow-up hearing in Rogersville, Judge Wilson decided that it was in the best interest of the Third Judicial District that he agree to the recusal.
He did so a few days later and since that time has not dealt as a judge with any cases in which Rogers or his associates are involved.
The matter referred to in the censure case resulting in the "private admonishment" related to numerous complaints and requests for recusal filed by Rogers and his associates in the 1990s, even though the Board's statement this week did not name Rogers or his firm.
Bean v. Bailey was a legal case in which the plaintiff, Bean, was represented by Rogers.
Asked Friday if he had any comment on the censure and reprimand decisions of the Board this week, Rogers replied only that "My comment is that at long last the administration of justice has caught up with Judge John K. Wilson."
Concerning the reprimand case, Judge Craft explained that "ex parte" means that a judge has listened to a request by one side in a case without the other side in the case being present, or that a judge has given a decision in a case without both sides having had a chance for a fair hearing.