Outside the parameters

With the judge’s acceptance, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Judge Michael Hinson for “conducting judicial business outside the parameters of the COVID-19” plan for his judicial district as approved by the Tennessee Supreme Court and making a discourteous remark about the Chief Justice.  Hinson (Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct December 15, 2020).

The judge failed to limit the number of persons in his courtroom and has not been enforcing social distancing requirements; at times, his courtroom “has been filled to capacity, even to the point of members of the public having to stand shoulder to shoulder along the walls because all the seats are taken.”  In addition, referring to the Court’s pandemic-related guidelines, the judge commented to a court audience that he “wished Chief Justice Jeff Bivens would win an award so that the COVID-19 mandates” would end.

The judge acknowledged that “failing to abide by the directives of a higher court is unacceptable and reflects poorly” on him as a judge and admitted that his comment was wrong, although he stated that he “intended no disrespect.”

The Board acknowledged that the judge’s courtroom was small and that he has been trying to avoid a backlog of cases, but it emphasized that the COVID-19 guidelines adopted by the Court “are not mere suggestions.  Conducting judicial business within those guidelines, which have been expressed in court orders, is not optional. . . .  By requiring all judicial districts to adopt measures designed to protect users and employees of the court system from the risks associated with COVID-19, the Supreme Court has recognized that the health and safety of litigants, witnesses, attorneys, court staff, and others is of utmost importance.  Thus, regardless of how logistically or administratively inconvenient, and no matter a judge’s personal views concerning the pandemic generally, all judges are obligated to comply with and enforce the pertinent guidelines.” 

The Board also stated that the judge’s comment regarding the Chief Justice was “neither dignified nor courteous” and did not inspire public confidence in the judiciary “even if off-the-cuff and with no intent to be offensive.”  It acknowledged that there was no evidence to doubt the judge’s assertion that he had not 5“to cast aspersions on any member of the Supreme Court,” but emphasized that those who heard the comment had no way of determining his “intent apart from the words used.  Once such comments are made, the damage is done.” 

See also In re Disqualification of Fleegle (Chief Justice Ohio Supreme Court December 10, 2020) (disqualification of judge from 2 criminal cases because he could not prove that he had taken steps to protect the safety of individuals in the courtroom and could not articulated “the necessity of proceeding with jury trials during a dangerous stage of a pandemic”).

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