Tennessee Supreme Court Orders New Post-Conviction Hearing Before a Different Judge Based on Comments Made from the Bench

August 25, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today confirmed that a judge has an obligation to recuse himself or herself from a case if the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned, even if a litigant does not file a motion for recusal.  The Court vacated the decision by a judge in a post-conviction relief case and remanded the case to the trial court for a new post-conviction hearing before a different judge.                                

In the case before the Supreme Court, Brice Cook filed a petition seeking post-conviction relief from his conviction of first-degree premeditated murder for the fatal shooting of Ms. Shantell Lane in Shelby County.  Mr. Cook alleged that his trial attorneys were ineffective because they failed to communicate a plea offer to him in a timely manner. Ineffective assistance of counsel is a common post-conviction claim.

Judge Lee V. Coffee presided over the claim for post-conviction relief and denied Mr. Cook relief. In his oral ruling from the bench, Judge Coffee described the post-conviction process in Tennessee as a game; compared Mr. Cook’s appointed counsel in the
post-conviction claim to a Monday morning quarterback; characterized Mr. Cook’s claims as “almost absolutely laughable;” expressed a preference for Texas law, where the judge had previously practiced law, on post-conviction procedures; and expressed doubt that Mr. Cook’s trial attorneys could ever be ineffective.

Mr. Cook appealed and a majority of the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the denial of relief. The Supreme Court accepted Mr. Cook’s appeal.

In its decision, the Supreme Court reviewed the Tennessee Rules of Judicial Conduct, which declare that judges must “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.”  Another provision declares that judges “shall uphold and apply the law, and shall perform all duties of judicial office fairly and impartially.”

The Court held that a Tennessee judge must recuse himself or herself “in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” The Supreme Court explained that a judge’s impartiality may reasonably be questioned if a reasonable person of ordinary prudence in the judge’s position, knowing all the facts known to the judge, would question the judge’s impartiality.  Under Tennessee Supreme Court rules, judges are obligated to recuse themselves even if litigants do not file recusal motions.

Applying these principles, the Supreme Court ruled Judge Coffee’s comments would indicate to a reasonable person that the decision to deny Mr. Cook relief was based as much on the judge’s disdain for, and disagreement with, Tennessee law regarding post-conviction procedures and his belief that trial counsel were so preeminent, skilled, and knowledgeable that they could never be ineffective in any case as on the evidence presented at the hearing.  As a result, the Supreme Court held that the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned and that he should have recused himself. The Supreme Court reversed the post-conviction judge’s denial of relief and remanded for a new post-conviction hearing before a different judge.

Given the judge’s broad comments expressing disdain for post-conviction hearings, the Court also reviewed whether the comments in this case call into question the judge’s impartiality for all future post-conviction cases. The Court stopped inches short of drawing that conclusion, finding that the judge’s comments were isolated and not habitual. The Court did caution, however, that it would not hesitate to disqualify a judge from hearing future cases if it determined the judge habitually made inappropriate comments that call into reasonable question the judge’s impartiality.

To read the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Brice Cook v. State authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.