ROGERSVILLE — The Rogersville attorney general’s office and the public defender’s office based in Morristown each asked Hawkins County Sessions Judge James “Jay” Taylor to recuse himself from hearing cases Wednesday morning — in essence to step down — but the judge said no.
Both requests were made as a result of Taylor being accused of theft in the form of five charges issued by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary (COJ) Tuesday evening.
Prior to the beginning of court Wednesday, Taylor was presented with written motions from both the Rogersville attorney general’s office and the Morristown public defender’s office, which serves several area counties including Hawkins.
The motion filed by the attorney general’s office asked Taylor to recuse himself “based on the formal charges of violating the code of judicial conduct filed by the Tennessee Board of Judiciary on Jan. 24, 2012.”
The motion cites Judicial Canon 3, Subsection E, providing that, “A judge shall disqualify himself or herself in a proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”
The attorney general’s office gave a statement Wednesday saying its motion was intended to eliminate “the appearance of impropriety” that might occur when a judge accused of theft presides over criminal cases in which defendants are charged with theft.
Upon being presented with the written motions, Taylor contacted state officials for advice on how to proceed.
Each motion was then read aloud in open court prior to the calling of the docket Wednesday morning, at which time Taylor denied the motions.
“After speaking earlier this morning with the chairman of the state judicial ethics committee and being advised to deny the motion, I properly denied a motion made by the district attorney general’s office to recuse myself in the cases pending before the court today,” Taylor told the Times-News Wednesday afternoon. “As previously stated, I deny any wrongdoing in these matters, and I intend to work with the Court of Judiciary to clear my good name. I ask for everyone's continued support, and prayers for me and my family.”
The COJ polices sitting Tennessee judges and has the authority to levy disciplinary action ranging from censure or paid suspension, to recommending removal from the bench by the Tennessee General Assembly. The COJ doesn’t have the authority to suspend without pay or remove a sitting judge itself, however.
COJ count one against Taylor alleges that on or about June 20, 2008, he received in excess of $9,000 from a client, Julie Rasmussen, which he told her would be invested by him and which was allegedly “converted by James Taylor to his own use.”
The second COJ charge alleges that while Taylor served as juvenile court judge, and later as sessions judge, he filed numerous claims with the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts claiming payment for services as appointed counsel in cases that he performed no legal service.
The third charge alleges that while serving as juvenile court judge Taylor collected funds as a result of representing to the public that he was organizing a “Citizens Heritage Display” — a monument with historical documents including the Ten Commandments — that he said would be displayed in the lobby of the new Hawkins County Justice Center.
Instead Taylor allegedly “converted the funds collected for his own use.”
The fourth charge alleges Taylor acted as the judge in matters that came before the Hawkins County Sessions Court and then filed claims for the same cases with the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts claiming payment for services as appointed counsel in those cases.
The fifth COJ charge against Taylor alleges that on Dec. 21, 2011, he was given notice that a full investigation into the facts surrounding the first four charges was taking place, and that he had 30 days to file a response with the COJ Disciplinary Counsel, which he failed to do.
On Wednesday, the Times-News requested specific information from the COJ related to the theft allegations in charges two, three and four, including how many fraudulent payment claims Taylor allegedly made to the state, how much he was alleged to have collected from the state, and how much of the donated Citizens Heritage Display funds he is alleged to have collected for his own use.
Presiding COJ Judge Chris Craft served on the panel that investigated allegations against Taylor.
Craft told the Times-News Wednesday that evidence in COJ cases is handled similarly to evidence in criminal court cases.
Taylor has 30 days to file a response to the charges, after which Taylor can “file for discovery” to receive specifics about the allegations and charges against him.
“Until all that is done, nobody involved in the case is allowed to talk about the exhibits or the evidence,” Craft said. “It’s an adversarial proceeding, and the case has to run its course. When you ask questions about how many payment claims were made to the state and how much he received, the disciplinary counsel and the prosecution aren’t allowed to go into that.”
After Taylor files a response to the COJ charges, the COJ will schedule a trial within 60 days, assuming there isn’t a continuance.
Craft said Taylor’s trial would be held in Rogersville.
Because he was on the investigative panel, Craft recused himself from presiding over Taylor’s COJ trial. Presiding Judge pro-tem Jean Stanley will serve as presiding judge in Taylor’s COJ trial.
The jury will consist of the other 12 judges who serve on the COJ.