By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — Some of the most powerful people in Tennessee’s government may communicate in secret among themselves, don’t have to take an oath of office and have the power to tax a select group of people.
The people who work for this agency, the Board of Professional Responsibility, under the Tennessee Supreme Court, don’t have accountability to state lawmakers.
The state Supreme Court created the board on its own initiative, without state legislators’ input or approval, said Brentwood attorney Connie Reguli.
Technically, the board only has the power to discipline attorneys whom they think act unethically.
In reality, board members have power over anyone who has any business in a Tennessee courtroom, Reguli said.
Reguli and Nashville attorney Jim Roberts told Tennessee Watchdog last week that board members have become power hungry and vindictive, especially toward attorneys who ask judges to recuse themselves.
“The courts can take your children, your money, your property, your life and your freedom,” Reguli said.
“If you end up in a courtroom you are at the mercy of the people in charge. Your attorney has to be able to fearlessly represent you and you should not be worried about retaliation if for some reason the judge doesn’t like them.”
Reguli said she hopes state legislators will one day investigate the board and its lack of oversight.
“The best thing that could happen would be a legislative investigation, especially when it comes to asking how they are appropriating their own money,” Reguli said.
Specifically, Reguli is referring to a yearly $170 tax, which she said attorneys have to pay, on top of a licensing fee, to the board.
“Only the state Legislature can create a tax, but our Supreme Court appropriates this money to itself and then deposits the money with itself, with the sole purpose of using it for the board,” Reguli said.
Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Michele Wojciechowski confirmed that the board collects what she called professional privilege tax money from attorneys, which she said is no different than what Tennessee charges for a variety of other professions.
Reguli also said she believes board members, who she said act as judges, should take an oath of office. Wojciechowski said that isn’t necessary, per a 2013 ruling from the state Supreme Court.
In the case, in which a Knoxville attorney filed suit against the board, the state Supreme Court ruled that board members don’t occupy “an office of trust or profit,” and therefore don’t have to take an oath.
Only the state Constitution or the General Assembly, the state Supreme Court ruled, may create an office of public trust.
“The Board was established by this Court, not created by the Constitution or an act of the General Assembly,” according to the ruling.
Additionally, Wojciechowski told Tennessee Watchdog board members also have the right to correspond with one another in privileged and confidential circumstances.
“There’s complaints filed against attorneys for a lot of different reasons,” Wojciechowski said.
“Obviously, people in need of legal help often have multiple issues and sometimes the resolution isn’t what they had hoped for and sometimes that results in an attorney’s complaint, which, many times, is valid and many times is not. Some of the work they do is confidential in order to maintain the integrity of the process and make sure that they’re getting the best results.”
As Tennessee Watchdog reported in 2010, Roberts testified to a legislative committee that a judge retaliated against him after he asked that judge to recuse himself from a case. The same judge later reported Roberts to the board.
“There was a very real perception that when you asked a judge to recuse themselves they would retaliate against you for doing it. The lawyers were afraid to do it. Hell, I was afraid to do it,” Roberts told Tennessee Watchdog this year.
“I was unwilling to believe at that time that it was just a completely corrupt system. I’m smarter now. I kept thinking ‘Surely these are decent people trying to do the right thing’ — and they’re not. They’re just a Gestapo whose only function is just to run down people. If a judge says run someone down, they’ll run them down regardless.”
ROBERTS: Nashville attorney Jim Roberts has serious concerns about Tennessee’s Board of Professional Responsibility
As Tennessee Watchdog reported last week, State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, has proposed legislation that would take away the state Supreme Court’s administrative powers and give them to the state comptroller’s office.
The bill would also make all Administrative Office of the Courts and Board of Professional Responsibility documents public, according to the Tennessee Bar Association.
Writing for The Week.com, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen condemned McNally’s bill, calling it “the most egregious of this year’s crop of ill-advised measures” of all the state legislatures nationwide.
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