Divisions within the Republican-led Legislature over how to pick the state’s most powerful judges are so deep that top GOP leaders say they’ll hedge their bets and advance two competing plans instead of agreeing on one.
The only similarity between the two proposals is they would do away with the state Constitution’s requirement that judges face elections, said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who said the move would give lawmakers an extra two years to hash out their differences on how judges are picked.
“There are very diverse ideas on this, but the bottom line is I think we’re going to pass something to keep judges from having to run statewide and, in the end, put the retention ballot that we have now into the Constitution,” Ramsey told Tennessee Chamber of Commerce members in downtown Nashville Wednesday.
House Speaker Beth Harwell says she’d go along with Ramsey’s plan to move multiple measures to get over the constitutionally-required hurdle, although she remains adamantly opposed to any proposal that would elect judges.
“I certainly understand those people who want the popular election of judges,” Harwell said at the Chamber event. “If I thought we could develop a system where money wouldn’t unduly influence it, I’d be much more open to that. I don’t know how you could do that, though,”
Lawmakers are split three ways over how to select judges.
Top GOP leaders say the state should legitimize the current method for selecting judges, called the “Tennessee Plan.” It allows the governor to appoint judges to the state’s highest courts, then requires they face yes-no retention elections to renew their eight-year terms. Senate Joint Resolution 107 would rewrite the Constitution to allow the Legislature to set the rules and align them with the Tennessee Plan.
Others want the state to mimic the federal system of selecting judges. That proposal, SJR710, calls for the governor to appoint judges who then must be confirmed by the General Assembly.
And a third contingent wants the state to follow the Constitution as-is and require judges to face the voters in popular elections.
Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, says he believes government is best when it is closest to the people, and is pushing to allow voters to elect top judges in August of 2014. That would bring the state in line with the guiding document’s contested language, which according to proponents requires judges to be elected. His proposal, HB173, is up for a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee next week.
The Constitution states, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also states, “The judges of the Circuit and Chancery Courts, and of other inferior Courts, shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, who came out with Ramsey and Harwell in the beginning of the Legislative session to declare support for constitutionalizing the “Tennessee Plan,” said last week he could go along with likening how the state selects judges to the federal plan.
Changing the constitution is a drawn-out process that takes years to complete. Any proposal would require majority approval in the General Assembly this year, then need a two-thirds majority vote again before the 2014 gubernatorial election, when it would be posed to the voters for final approval.