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Sixth Circuit Says Club Membership is Judicial Misconduct

By Robyn Hagan Cain on November 21, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee ruled last week that Judge George C. Paine, II, Chief Judge of the Middle District of Tennessee Bankruptcy Court, committed judicial misconduct by violating Canon 2C of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, which prohibits "holding membership in an organization that practices invidious discrimination on the bases of race and sex."

Judge Paine is a Resident Member of the Belle Meade Country Club, a 110-year-old private social club located in Nashville, Tennessee. While the club does not explicitly ban female or African American Resident Members, it has never had female or African American Resident Members.

Former Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Danny Boggs dismissed the complaint in 2008 for failure to make an adequate showing of misconduct. The complainant then petitioned the Sixth Circuit Judicial Council for review of Judge Boggs's dismissal; a Special Committee concluded that Judge Paine's membership at Belle Meade did not violate the Code of Conduct. The Sixth Circuit Judicial Council, by a vote of 10-8, agreed with the Committee's conclusion.

The complainant appealed again, this time to the Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee, which "easily concluded" that Judge Paine's Belle Meade membership violated the judicial conduct rules.

To his credit, Judge Paine tried to persuade the membership of the club to embrace diversity, but he then remained a member at Belle Meade for years after the club failed to adopt an integrative membership strategy. That, according to the Committee, was enough to qualify for judicial misconduct.

While the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Committee noted that there are gay, Jewish, and other non-African American persons of color who are Resident Members of Belle Meade, the question for purposes of Canon 2C is whether an organization invidiously discriminates on one - not all - of the listed bases. Just because Belle Meade does not discriminate against members of certain sexual-orientation, religious, or ethnic groups does not mean that the Club does not discriminate specifically against women or African Americans.

Judges, private club memberships can results in professionally embarrassing judicial misconduct reviews. If you are concerned that your club or organization has discriminatory membership practices, it is better to withdraw from the organization than to face prolonged - and even repeated - misconduct inquiries.

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