An inside-baseball view of judicial ethics and the media

For today, an interesting (at least I think it is interesting) story about a judicial ethics scenario and the ability of media to “shape” a story and how that ability can transform a question of judicial ethics.

About three weeks ago, I spoke with a print reporter with The Nashville Scene about questions he had on a story he was working on about a part-time judge of the General Sessions environmental court in Nashville.  This particular court, among the cases it hears, are ones over using property for purposes of short-term rentals (think Airbnb) without obtaining the required permit to do so.

The reporter’s issue involved the fact that this court would adjudicate the question of whether a property owner was pursuing this endeavor without being properly permitted and that the part-time judge in question owned several properties that were properly permitted.  The reporter was interested in my view on whether this created a disqualifying conflict for the judge under Tennessee’s judicial ethics rules.

We talked for a good bit and, ultimately, I explained my view that — based on my understanding of what the court could (and could not) decide — that the answer was “no, not a disqualifying conflict.

You can read The Nashville Scene story, which contains a fair representation of what I had to say, here.  A few days later, as the public attention on this story continued to grow, I got a call from a reporter with a TV station in Nashville who wanted to know if I’d be willing to do an on-camera interview for a story they were doing on this situation.  He said he saw The Nashville Scene story, knew my view, and wanted me to elaborate on that for the story they were doing.

We worked out a set-up so that we could do a Skype-video interview for his use and managed to talk on camera for maybe 15 minutes or so.  And I again laid out these points in significant detail about why, in my view, this simply wasn’t a conflict.  (I’m biased, but I recall giving a really good explanation of how different the scenario would be if this particular court had the power to hear challenges to the permitting system itself on constitutional or other grounds, for example.)

Cut to the story that actually aired, which you can watch here.  I’m not in it.  Normally, I’m extremely cool with situations, even where I’ve given of my time to a media outlet, where I end up on the cutting room floor.  That’s just life.  But, when you know in advance what I am going to say and I go out of my way to make things happen on your time frame, it is a little more personally frustrating.  But, I swear, I’m not writing this to vent my personal frustration or make this about me.

Instead, the reason I think any of this is interesting at all is the impact that the kind of one-sided TV segment had on what happened next… which is that the judge in question ended up resigning the position citing the fact not that there was originally a disqualifying conflict but because:

“because I believe that the public has an absolute right to feel that their court system is fair and impartial and that recent misleading media reports could call the Court’s fairness into question.”

Now, was that all there was to the story?  No.  I’ve now come to learn in the process of writing about this that there was an intervening news story regarding whether or not the judge was also violating a provision of the ordinance his court was enforcing.  You can watch a story about that here.  I’ll admit I haven’t even tried to dive deep enough into an understanding of the ordinance involved to know whether that is the equivalent of a traffic court judge who happens to get caught speeding or something more serious.  Also, my opinion is, of course, only my opinion and is not dispositive of what the right answer to the question should have been… but as a “participant” in this process, I thought it would still make for an interesting word to the wise about how stories on ethical questions can manage to be “framed” for public consumption in ways that ultimately can heavily impact the outcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *