01/19/05 — Petition seeks removal of Superior Court judge

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Petition seeks removal of Superior Court judge

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on January 19, 2005 2:17 PM

PIKEVILLE -- A group of people angry over the way Judge Jerry Braswell handled the appointment of magistrates is trying to raise a petition to get him removed from office.

About 30 people gathered Tuesday night at the Masonic Lodge in Pikeville to discuss the petition, which claims Braswell violated the Code of Judicial Conduct when he did not reappoint several incumbent magistrates.

State law precludes the removal of a sitting judge by petition, or even the filing of a lawsuit against one. But the people who attended Tuesday night's meeting said state officials still should listen to their complaints.

Braswell said today that when he was elected four years ago, the magistrate's office was in turmoil. His decisions regarding appointments were an attempt to straighten out the office, he said.

"We had magistrates filing complaints against other magistrates," Braswell said. "I'm simply trying to provide Wayne County with a group of magistrates who will be conscientious in their work and loyal and supportive of their fellow magistrates."

Braswell said state law requires the clerk of court to nominate a minimum of two applicants for each magistrate position, more if the superior court judge requests more. He asked Clerk of Court Marshall Minshew on Nov. 23 to provide four applicants to each of the nine magistrate posts. Braswell said that on Dec. 20, Minshew submitted 25 names. He said he made his decisions and mailed letters to the candidates on Dec. 23.

Braswell said he kept three magistrates on as hold-over magistrates when the clerk failed to re-nominate them. They were Allen Jones, Terry Hatch and Patricia Williams.

"I was satisfied with their work performance, and I elected to keep them as hold-over magistrates," he said. "I can hold them over indefinitely."

Braswell said it's his opinion the magistrate's office is in excellent condition now.

"I don't think you will see the turmoil and dissension that took place when I took office," he said. "I get a lot of experienced people in my courtroom. Experience is not always a good thing. Experienced people were causing the turmoil in the magistrate's office."

Braswell said people are entitled to express their opinions but that state law clearly gives the resident superior court judge the authority and responsibility to appoint magistrates.

"I'm not going to delegate my authority to appoint the magistrates to someone else or let private citizens dictate to me who is to be appointed as magistrate," Braswell said. "That authority was delegated to me, and I'm the best person to make that decision, according to the General Assembly."

Dennis Lewis, who helped organize Tuesday's meeting, said he belives the citizens of Wayne County "deserve better than what we're getting from Jerry Braswell."

Wayne District Court Judge Joe Setzer, who attended the meeting, explained what the law says about magistrates. The Legislature determines how many magistrates each county needs. The clerk of court nominates candidates for the two-year terms and the resident superior court judge appoints them. The chief district court judge, following custom, oversees the magistrates' work.

The law is specific about how long officials have to complete the appointment process. The clerk must submit nominations no earlier than the Tuesday following the first Monday in December and no later than the third Monday in December. The judge must make the appointments no later than the fourth Monday.

Sandra Castle and Remona McIver were two of the magistrates who were not reappointed.

Two years ago, two men were not reappointed. They were Bob Holmes and Bob Forsythe.

Holmes said that in past years reappointment was a formality as long as a magistrate did a good job. When Braswell was elected he served notice that the practice would be different, Holmes said.

"These ladies have definitely been wronged," said Forsythe.

Setzer said he had held a hearing to try to correct the problems in the magistrates' office.

A major issue was scheduling. Mrs. McIver said she would make out the schedules the way Setzer told her, and Braswell would ask her to change it. Braswell would remind her he made the appointments, not Setzer, she said.

"Braswell threatened to not re-appoint me if I did what Setzer told me," Mrs. McKiver said.

She said she complained to the state Judicial Standards Commission, but was told that said there wasn't enough evidence for a hearing. The Administrative Office of the Courts instructed her to do what Setzer told her to do, she said.

Mrs. Castle's husband, Jack, said there's a void now in the magistrate's office.

"That gap's going to be there for years to come. We have to continue the complaints, bombard them so they'll know what the situation is."