White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, the architect of a controversial sterilization-for-jailtime program that has been compared to eugenics and is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit, has been publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct. The Board’s Order, entered November 20, 2017 and accessible here, concludes that Judge Benningfield violated Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.1 (Compliance with the Law) and Rule 1.2 (Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary).
Benningfield was publicly reprimanded for two separate incidents, both of which are referenced in this federal lawsuit against him.
First, Benningfield was found to have retaliated against a defendant for registering a valid hearsay objection—threatening to withdraw the entire county’s house arrest program and inform other defendants in the county that “they can thank [her]” for what happened if she failed to do so. The defendant’s attorney ultimately withdrew his hearsay objection following Judge Benningfield’s threat.
Second, and more prominently, Judge Benningfield was found to have instituted an illegal sterilization-for-jailtime program in White County, Tennessee. “[Y]ou now realize that this [program] could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper,” the public reprimand states.
Last week, several inmates who sued over the program sought an immediate order terminating it on the basis that it was still pending and violates the 14th Amendment. The public reprimand indicates that since the inmates’ most recent filing, Judge Benningfield has entered an order ending the program.
Notably, the Board of Judicial Conduct’s public reprimand stops short of recommending Judge Benningfield’s removal from office. (Attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmates who sued Judge Benningfield, has previously stated that “if Judge Benningfield will not resign his office, he should be removed.“) If sterilizing inmates and retaliating against defendants who exercise their rights in his courtroom does not merit removal, however, one might reasonably wonder what a judge could do that would. Selected documents from the lawsuit filed against Judge Benningfield are available below.
Selected media coverage about the case
-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization