Panel faults judge’s membership in segregated club

WASHINGTON (AP) ? A panel of federal judges said Thursday that a bankruptcy judge’s membership in a Nashville, Tenn., country club that has no women or blacks as full-fledged members violates the judiciary’s code of ethics.

But the panel said it will not take any disciplinary action against Judge George Paine II because he is planning to retire next month. Paine is the chief bankruptcy judge for the Middle District of Tennessee, which includes Nashville and nearly three dozen counties.

He has belonged to the Belle Meade Country Club since 1978. The club has never had a woman or a black with membership privileges that include voting and holding office.

The ethics code for federal judges says they should not belong to organizations that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion or national origin. Five senior federal judges said “the conclusion that Belle Meade engages in invidious discrimination against women and African Americans is inescapable.”

The panel, the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, said an earlier decision in favor of Paine was “clearly erroneous.”

In April, appellate and trial judges in the 6th Circuit, which spans Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, dismissed an ethics complaint against Paine by a vote of 10-8, and over four separate dissenting opinions. The majority held that Paine took steps over 15 years to try to integrate the club. The 6th Circuit’s Chief Judge Alice Batchelder said, “Those efforts preclude a finding that he has engaged in misconduct.”

The new opinion also praised Paine for trying to diversify the club’s membership and, more generally, for his long public service, which began with a stint in the Army.

But the judges said that the evidence of discrimination by Belle Meade has been clear for many years and that Paine should have resigned long ago.

The woman who complained about Paine has not been identified. She first filed a complaint with the 6th Circuit’s chief judge in 2008. Then-Chief Judge Danny Boggs dismissed the complaint after a limited investigation.

Her first appeal led to the divided 6th Circuit opinion. She appealed that ruling to the judicial conduct committee, the highest-level ethics panel in the judiciary.

Thursday’s opinion was the first to enforce the 19-year-old provision concerning membership in clubs that discriminate, the committee said.

Discipline for bankruptcy judges, who serve 14-year terms, can include removal from office by a vote of other judges. Most federal judges have lifetime appointments and only Congress can oust them through the impeachment process.