In an unprecedented action, a judicial ethics panel has amended an earlier decision in order to publicly reprimand Judge George Paine, Chief Justice of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. At issue is his controversial membership in the Belle Meade Country Club, the bulwark of privilege renowned for its less than inclusionary practices and almost exclusively white membership.
According to a filing made yesterday, a five-member Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference effectively slammed an Apr. 8 ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that absolved Paine of any perceived antebellum bias. The Sixth Circuit Court had dismissed a 2008 lawsuit brought against Paine by an unknown complainant, who alleged Paine was guilty of violating judicial conduct codes by retaining his Belle Meade membership and serving as a judge at the same time.
The committee rejected that court's rationale. In the process, it initiated the inaugural enforcement of a little-known canon of judicial conduct that prohibits judges from belonging to organizations that practice "invidious discrimination."
At the conclusion of the damning 18-page decision, the committee stops short of recommending disciplinary action against Paine. Nor does it call for his ouster. The judge's efforts to integrate the otherwise vanilla makeup of the 110-year-old good-ol'-boys club and his impending retirement at the end of this year likely render such actions moot.
"[We] note with unreserved sincerity that our decision is not intended to impugn Judge Paine’s good faith, of which there is much evidence. He tried to change the Club’s discriminatory practices by writing a letter challenging those practices and by promoting the cause of at least one African American applicant for Resident Membership," the committee states.
But while the five-member committee finds "there is no cause for us at this point to order Judge Paine’s removal from office or to take disciplinary action beyond the public reprimand that this opinion represents," it does offer something of a warning: that "should Judge Paine change his retirement plans, we would be required to revisit this conclusion."
Paine was appointed to the bench in 1981, and has been a Belle Meade member since 1978.
Perhaps most interestingly, the complaint provides rare information about the tony but otherwise nebulous club, including member hierarchy, a total headcount (as of 2007 there were 1,100 members) and more. The entire decision can be found here [PDF].