On November 15, 2017, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct publicly reprimanded Judge Benningfield for an incident in a probation violation hearing where he threatened to end the house arrest program and for the vasectomy order. The Board found that Judge Benningfield “promptly and with candor responded and . . . fully cooperated with the Board of Judicial Conduct” and that he violated Rule 1.1 and Rule 1.2, which state:
CANON 1 – A JUDGE SHALL UPHOLD AND PROMOTE THE INDEPENDENCE, INTEGRITY, AND IMPARTIALITY OF THE JUDICIARY, AND SHALL AVOID IMPROPRIETY AND THE APPEARANCE OF IMPROPRIETY.
RULE 1.1 Compliance with the Law
A judge shall comply with the law, including the Code of Judicial Conduct.
RULE 1.2 Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary
A judge shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
Without more information, it’s difficult to comment on the house arrest issue. The little I know about it makes me question whether it was really a quid pro quo situation, as indicated in the reprimand. Also, I think Judge Benningfield mentioned something to the clerk about putting them on the docket, which implies they would have hearings. However, without being there and with as little as has been written on this particular issue, that’s all I can say at this time. I welcome any comments with more information.
Regarding the vasectomy order, I’ve already detailed my thoughts here and here. As shown in those blog posts, the order was constitutional and ethical. The reprimand indicates that the Board was concerned that the order could “unduly coerce” inmates into undergoing surgical procedures that could at least cause temporary sterilization. This is a question for the higher courts, not the Board. There is no statute or case on point stating that what Judge Benningfield did was illegal. The legion of big city attorneys upset at Judge Benningfield are assuming that higher courts would find such an order illegal. That may be the case in the future, but when the order was issued, it was perfectly legal. Further, Judge Benningfield’s order was far less “extreme” than previous “eugenics” decisions by the United States Supreme Court.
It’s also troubling how the Board could find that Judge Benningfield’s actions undermine confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary. Judge Benningfield is (very) strict, but he is completely impartial. This order is impartial. Is the Board alleging that the Judge somehow benefited from the order? I’ve talked with several people about this order, and no one has mentioned anything like that. Instead of benefiting from the situation, Judge Benningfield went out on a limb, risking his own reputation trying to do what was right. I am at a loss to figure out how Rule 1.2 even made it into the reprimand.
Regardless, the Board has spoken and our small county has to comply, for now. Let the ACLU keep finding rights where they don’t exist and rural America will keep electing politicians like Trump. Eventually, we’ll get judges that apply the law, rather than make it.