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Judges appointed to hear cases during Judge Bell's suspension

Published: 9:28 PM, 07/30/2010

Author: Gilbert Soesbee
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

The Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice M. Holder have approved a list of judges who will hear cases during Cocke County General Sessions Judge John Bell's three-month suspension.

Judge Bell was convicted in June before the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary of several state judicial ethics violations and suspended with pay for 90 days. He was also ordered to enroll in judicial ethics training.

The AOC confirmed on Friday that no stay of the court's order has been issued by the state supreme court or the court of the judiciary and Judge Bell's suspension is scheduled to begin in August and last through October.

There are numerous familiar names on the list of judges named to sit in general sessions and juvenile court during Judge Bell's three-month suspension. Retired and sitting judges from across East Tennessee have been appointed to hear the local cases.

The list of substitute judges includes former Chancellor Jim McSween, of Newport; former Circuit Judge Ben Strand; Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood, of Knoxville; Hamblen County General Sessions Judge Janice Snider; and other retired and sitting judges.

The designation orders and a specific court calendar have been approved and signed by Chief Justice Holder. The calendar is scheduled to go into effect on Monday, August 2, and last until the end of October.

Judge Bell was found guilty on June 3 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.

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.


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