As the battle brews over how to pick the state’s most powerful judges, plans to make them earn their seat on the bench through popular elections narrowly failed in a House committee Wednesday.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-7 on a plan to elect Supreme and appellate court judges, one vote shy of the majority vote necessary to advance the plan in the Legislature.
“I’m disappointed, to say the least,” said bill sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, who contends the current practice flies in the face of the Tennessee Constitution. The constitution says judges of the Supreme, Circuit and Chancery Courts, and other inferior courts “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.”
“The constitution governs how we do business and do public policy in the state,” said Casada, R-Franklin. “To be out of compliance is wrong. If you can’t comply with the most basic, how can you trust us to comply with other parts of the law as well?”
The narrow vote shows there is still distinct division in the GOP-run Legislature over the best way to go about choosing who should sit on the bench in the state’s highest courts.
The measure, HB173, would have required high-ranking judges to face popular elections beginning in August 2014 instead of the yes/no retention elections they now face every eight years.
The Senate considered amendments to the state Constitution earlier Wednesday, but isn’t expected to vote on the plans until next week.
SJR710, on the other hand, would require the governor’s judicial appointments to win approval from the General Assembly. Those judges would also face retention elections to renew their terms.
Much of the debate sparks from varying interpretations of the Constitution and whether a “retention election” heeds the call in the state’s guiding document for an “election.”
“Let’s get away from this myth that what we have is not an elected system,” said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. “We do elect judges, we just don’t have contests which lead to partisanship and big money influence.”