Who Can Judge a Judge?

The Baumgartner case raises questions about judicial oversight

As Al Gore might say, there is no controlling legal authority…

The oft repeated question around town the last couple of weeks is what did the Knoxville legal community know about Judge Richard Baumgartner's drug problem and when did they know it? It is certainly an important question and some outside entity needs to investigate and tell the community the results.

If people knew Baumgartner was impaired by a drug habit and he was allowed to preside over four high-profile, multi-million-dollar murder trials, it's criminal. The trials subjected the victims' families and the community to horrific evidence about heinous crimes and now it appears the trials will have to be done over again.

The question I have is, how can we prevent it happening again?

Defense attorneys and prosecutors cannot confront judges. They have no authority to tell them what to do and the prospect of having a judge mad at you (they think) is too terrible to contemplate. Judges can ruin your career and cost you your cases. Commenters have suggested that reporters should have known Baumgartner was impaired and "busted" him. It's not a reporter's job to police the court system.

Judges are, essentially, sovereign. They are elected. They don't have a boss. The idea that a board in Nashville can keep up with the daily schedules and foibles of state judges is laughable. There is a bill scheduled for this session to reform the Court of the Judiciary, which is charged with regulating ethical behavior. Baumgartner will be the poster boy for the need for reform. The test of the reform needs to be the prevention of something like this happening again.

Baumgartner isn't the first Knox County judge to have a substance abuse problem, and I don't think he will be the last. Covering for the foibles of Knox County judges is a long-standing tradition. I once looked at the statistics to see if a particular judge was missing in action. The stats showed he had cleared as many or more cases than his colleagues. No one would go on the record. No stats, no sources, I dropped it. I learned later that his colleagues had let him handle all the plea bargains and dismissals, padding his statistics to make it appear that he was being productive.

There have also been instances when judges have not been too concerned about working overtime even when jails were full and trials were being reset with alarming regularity. It took a "come to Jesus" meeting with federal Judge James Jarvis to break the logjam.

We don't know if anyone reported Baumgartner's problems to the Court of the Judiciary, because complaints about judges are kept confidential. But some states have a position, at least in major metropolitan areas, called a courts administrator. The administrator assigns cases, manages the court system, and files regular reports. Such a position could insure that judges come back to the office after lunch. That all the judges carry a full and fair load. The judges wouldn't be able to pick and choose cases and grant continuances at will.

The judges would be independent in the courtroom and on matters of law. But the administrator would be able to file reports to the Court of the Judiciary if a judge is lazy, absent or impaired.

Yes, we have court clerks in Tennessee. But does anyone seriously think a court clerk could confront Baumgartner or any other judge? A court administrator would have to be protected by civil service and be subject to removal only by the state Supreme Court.

The suggestion that the state's judges will allow a position to be created that infringes on their prerogatives in any way is not likely to go anywhere. But something has to be done. It would be better if the judges came up with a solution. If they don't, legislators will likely do it for them. The judges might not like the outcome.

So rather than resist, perhaps a collaborative process could come up with a solution. The public is angry about this case, and the retrials may outrage them more.