Judge says it's her policy to retroactively sign orders issued by appointed fill-in lawyers

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A Tennessee judge is defending her policy of signing orders issued by lawyers or judges appointed to fill in for her when she is on vacation.

Judge Rachel Bell retroactively signed orders keeping 11 people in mental institutions against their will in late June after the lawyer filling in for her forgot to sign the documents, the Tennessean reports. Bell tells the newspaper that special judges filling in for her usually initial or sign orders they issue, and then she reviews and signs the orders too.

In the case of the 11 people, Bell signed the orders six days later. The clerk’s office had already entered the unsigned orders, according to Circuit Court Clerk Richard Rooker. Although Rooker believes the orders were valid when issued from the bench, he says they should not have been entered. “I can promise you it won’t happen again,” he told the newspaper.

The Tennessean found another instance last year in which Bell signed 42 commitment orders that weren’t signed or initialed by a fill-in judge. Bell signed the orders on the day they were issued by the special judge. Then in April, Bell signed 47 commitment orders issued by lawyers acting as judges, but the fill-in lawyers signed the orders too. Bell also signed those orders on the same day.

Tennessee law allows judges to appoint lawyers as special judges during a regular judge’s absence, though the preference is for the appointment of other judges or retired judges, the Tennessean reports. The lawyers who served as special judges for Bell signed an oath before beginning their duties.

J.S. “Steve” Daniel, a former lawyer for the state board that oversees judicial conduct, told the Tennessean he questions whether Bell had the authority to sign orders for cases she didn’t hear. “The question is this: Are the orders valid? Well, I’d say probably not, because she has no basis to sign them because she never heard any proof,” he said.

David Cook, a former member of the state judicial conduct board, spoke on Bell’s behalf. He said his own research indicates that practices vary in such situations, but a presiding judge can sign orders after reviewing them. Bell is presiding judge until Sept. 1.

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