Tuesday, June 29, 2010
(Last modified: 2010-06-29 08:47:19)
Author: Gilbert Soesbee
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

NEWPORT-To eliminate any cost to state and county taxpayers, the prosecutor before the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary is asking that the costs of hiring a substitute general sessions court judge be paid by Judge John Bell during a three-month suspension.

Judge Bell was found guilty earlier this month of three counts of violations of the Tennessee Code of Judicial Ethics relating to his handling of a civil lawsuit which was filed in sessions court in 2007. The court ordered that Judge Bell undergo judicial ethics training during the next three years and that he be suspended for three months from the sessions court bench.

But the court did not specifically address the cost of the sanctions. So Disciplinary Counsel Joseph S. Daniel has filed a motion before Chief Judge Don R. Ash asking that the costs of the punishment be borne by Judge Bell.

Although the court of the judiciary is not authorized under state law to suspend any Tennessee judge without pay, Daniel contends that "it would be inequitable, unfair, and unjust for the State of Tennessee or the citizens of Cocke County to be required to pay for a substitute judge to hold the normal business of Cocke County General Sessions Court during the period of the term of suspension.

"It is anticipated that Judge Bell will seek to either have the Administrative Office of the Courts to obtain and fund a substitute judge or to require the citizens of Cocke County to fund a substitute judge during his suspension," according to Daniel's recent motion. "Those expenses should be borne by Judge Bell and not be at the expense of either the state or the citizens of Cocke County."

After a two-day trial before an eight-member panel of the court of the judiciary on June 2 and 3, the court ordered that Judge Bell be suspended for 90 days from his duties as sessions judge, placed strict deadlines on his filing of future rulings, and ordered that he attend classes in judicial ethics for 42 hours during the next three years.

Judge Bell was on the witness stand for nearly five hours during the two days of the trial. He faced a three-count complaint alleging judicial ethics violations, the essence of which was filed last October by a three-judge investigative panel of the court, Tennessee's agency which oversees the behavior of judges in the state.

The ethics violations found against Judge Bell stem from his handling of a 2007 civil complaint concerning a December 2006 automobile accident in Cocke County. Judge Bell was found to have failed to decide the case in a timely fashion, taking about nine months to hand down a decision; to have initiated what are called ex parte conversations, or out-of-court communications, with the plaintiff in the civil case by recruiting Newport attorney Tom Testerman to talk with the plaintiff; and of refusing to step down from hearing evidence in a second civil lawsuit filed over the same incident in early 2009.

Judge Ash said the court found that Judge Bell violated the ethics canon requiring that cases be decided promptly, that he had failed to disclose to Coleman and Knoxville attorney Brad Fraser that the case was the subject of an ethics inquiry and that he should have stepped down from hearing a second lawsuit related to the accident to "avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety," and that he had initiated ex parte communications.

Judge Ash said the panel's vote on the first two counts was unanimous and the vote finding Judge Bell in violation of the ex parte communications rule was 5-3.

The disciplinary action handed down by the court was that Judge Bell be suspended as general sessions judge for 90 consecutive days beginning on August 1; that he submit his decisions in matters heard for the next three years to the parties within 30 days of any hearing or he must notify disciplinary counsel and explain the reasons for the delay; and that he attend 24 hours of judicial ethics training in 2010, 12 hours of training in 2011, and six hours of training in 2012.

The origins of the complaint date to a December 29, 2006, automobile accident between a vehicle driven by David Pleau, 54, of 1618 Scotch Pine Way, Bybee, and another automobile driven by Jo Ann Coleman.

Pleau filed a complaint with the court of the judiciary stemming from a civil lawsuit he filed in general sessions court in May 2007. That lawsuit, which has been dubbed "Pleau I," was filed against Merastar Insurance Company, the company which issued Pleau's uninsured motorist coverage.

Judge Bell heard the case on September 18, 2007, in a hearing in which Pleau represented himself and Merastar was represented by attorney Fraser.

At the end of the testimony in the case, Fraser asked that the case be dismissed and Judge Bell took a decision under advisement, allegedly promising a decision "within a week," Daniel told the court.

Pleau complained that Judge Bell took about nine months, until June 27, 2008, to hand down a written decision in the case and that when it was filed, copies of the decision were not mailed to the parties to the lawsuit and Pleau did not discover that a decision had been issued until long after the ten-day period for filing an appeal had expired.

Judge Bell's ruling in that case dismissed the complaint against Merastar on the basis that a policy-holder cannot sue his own insurance company without specifically naming the other driver as a defendant. But Daniel told the court that Judge Bell's ruling went further than that and held that Coleman was at fault in the collision.

Coleman was given no notice of the pending decision, was not represented in court, and did not know that a decision had been issued, Daniel alleged.

Judge Bell's June 2008 decision was placed in the court file, but because of what defense attorney Gordon Ball described as "a clerical error," none of the parties were notified that a decision had been issued.

In the wake of Pleau's complaint concerning the delay, Judge Bell discovered that the parties had not been notified and called for a second hearing.

In a letter to Daniel on December 15, 2008, Judge Bell wrote, "Unless you object I am going to correct the mistake."

During a hearing on December 23, 2008, Judge Bell "entered a public, on-the-record apology for the clerical error in filing the decision," Ball told the court.

Judge Bell dismissed Pleau I based on state supreme court precedents which require that the uninsured motorist be named as a defendant in the case.

Pleau corrected his earlier error by filing a second lawsuit relating to the accident, which has been called "Pleau II," on February 20, 2009, this time naming Coleman as a defendant.

Judge Bell also presided over the trial of Pleau II and found in Pleau's favor on April 27, 2009, awarding the plaintiff damages totaling $4,726.78 from Coleman.

During his testimony, Judge Bell said that the origins of complaints against him as sessions judge are his "political opponents" and suggested that the office of disciplinary counsel has assisted those unnamed opponents in filing complaints against him.

"Your office has, throughout this whole matter, told people, including my political opponents, about complaints filed against me," Judge Bell told Daniel during the trial. "You have communicated to people what the complaint was and when it was going to be filed."

Daniel's motion was filed on June 17 and will now be considered by the full court before it issues a ruling.



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