Benjamin Hooks has been sworn in as a special state Supreme Court justice to hear a case in which Democratic gubernatorial nominee John Jay Hooker is involved.
Meanwhile, Hooks is part of a prominent group of black Memphians publicly raising money for Hooker’s general-election opponent, incumbent Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. Hooks is listed as a member of the “host committee” for the $500-per-person fundraiser, which will be held in Memphis Sept. 15.
Some lawyers say the conflict and political involvement violate the spiritand may even violate the letterof the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct, the rules that guide jurists who sit on the state Supreme Court and on lesser courts throughout Tennessee.
Specifically, the code calls for “an independent and honorable judiciary” that “promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” One section of the Code of Judicial Conduct specifically prohibits judges from “inappropriate political activity,” although Hooks may be exempt from that specific canon because he is only serving as a part-time justice in this one case.
Nevertheless, part-time judges are subject to another canon that calls on any jurist to “disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” It is that specific language that would most reasonably apply to Hooks’ situation, lawyers say.
Hooker has filed a motion asking for the Memphian’s recusal in the case, which challenges the way state appellate court judges are selected and retained. He and lawyer Bob DeLaney are arguing that gubernatorial appointment of appellate judges, followed by retention elections, do not meet the standard of an election as outlined in the Tennessee Constitution. Hooker’s lawsuit also questions the use of certain campaign contributions for appellate judges seeking retention at the ballot box.
The state Supreme Court has recused itself from hearing the case, and the governor has appointed a special Supreme Court to hear the case instead. Of the five attorneys from across the state that he named to the panel, one of them is Hooks, a former judge and former national director of the NAACP.
“The issue involves campaign contributions and [Hooks] is in the process of raising campaign contributions, and therefore he has an interest” in the outcome of the case, Hooker says of Hooks’ apparent conflict. “Campaign contributions are a pivotal part of the lawsuit. They are just as much a menace in retention elections as in other campaigns,” Hooker says.
The Democratic candidate, who is campaigning on the need for sweeping political reform, says Hooks may not have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct yet. But Hooker charges he will if he hears the case. “I don’t claim that he’s done anything wrong up until now,” Hooker says, “but I claim that he should recuse himself forthwith.”
Reached by telephone at his home in Memphis, Hooks declined to comment to the Scene about the fundraiser.
Benjamin Hooks has other potential conflicts surrounding his appointment to the special Supreme Court. In an interview with the Scene several weeks ago, he confirmed that he served as the Shelby County campaign chairman for both of Hooker’s previous gubernatorial bidsin 1966 and 1970. In addition, he was involved with Mahalia Jackson Chicken, which was a subsidiary of Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken, one of Hooker’s best known business ventures. Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken folded after a tumultuousand what Hooker charges was a politically motivatedinvestigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Hooks told the Scene that his past political and business involvement with the Democratic candidate was of little consequence to his being an impartial judge. “I know how to be fair,” he said. He went on to say that he’s had no substantial relationship with Hooker for about 20 years.
On the one hand, Hooks’ endorsement of Sundquist is odd enough, given that blacks in Memphis usually vote en masse for Democratic candidates. But some attorneys also say that Hooks’ support for the governor could be seen as a quid pro quo for having been appointed to the special Supreme Court. Still others contend that showing campaign support for someone whose opponent has an issue in your courtroom may not only be a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct, but a gross lapse in judgment, or arrogant, or both.
More from John Jay
John Jay Hooker now says he wants to take Gov. Don Sundquist’s deposition as part of a lawsuit that he may file this week against the governor.
Hooker says he will ask that Sundquist be prohibited from raising campaign funds in the Executive Residence or other state buildings. He says he will also seek a court ruling to allow him to use the residence for a political rally for his own campaign. If he’s not allowed to hold his rally at the governor’s mansion, Hooker says, he will hold one anyway at Legislative Plaza.
In a separate development, Hooker says he plans to address the state’s Democratic Executive Committee at a meeting this weekend, where he will ask that the bodyamong other thingspass a resolution to rename the Executive Residence “The People’s House.”
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