Two lawyers named to a state panel to decide whether Tennessee’s system for selecting judges meets constitutional muster also lead a group that lobbies against judicial elections.
George H. Brown and William Muecke Barker are both listed as board members of Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts, an organization that fights against “misguided individuals and groups … pushing to replace our merit based system with state-wide partisan elections.”
Brown and Barker, along with three other lawyers, were handpicked by Gov. Bill Haslam to decide a lawsuit brought by Tennessee’s most indefatigable critic of the state’s merit-based system of judicial selection, John Jay Hooker.
“(Haslam)’s thrown down the gauntlet,” said Hooker, a two-time candidate for governor who has been fighting this issue in court through various lawsuits since 1996. “He’s said these judges are my people. He’s kind of got me cut off at the pass.”
Hooker is suing the governor and other high-ranking state elected officials to try and force them to revert back to a system of direct judicial elections. Currently in Tennessee, the governor appoints judges to the state Supreme and other appellate courts, with voters choosing whether to renew their eight-year terms.
A third lawyer Haslam selected to the special Supreme Court, Robert L. Echols, works for the Nashville law firm Bass, Berry and Simms. The telephone number listed on the Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts website rings at Bass, Berry and Simms. H. Lee Barfield, a member of the firm’s state government lobbying arm, is also a board member for TFIC and is past president of the organization.
The results of the case, Hooker v. Haslam, could have significant implications for state lawmakers. Constitutional sticklers have long argued that the state system of merit-selection by appointment followed by yes-no retention elections plainly violates the Tennessee Constitution. They say the mandate that judges be elected is being openly flouted.
However, Tennessee courts have upheld the view that retention elections meet the requirement that judges “shall be elected by the qualified voters,” as the Constitution mandates.
Haslam last month handpicked all five members of the Special Supreme Court to rule on the case, a task he said his staff carefully pondered given that the governor himself is a named defendant in the case. He’s standing by his appointees in the face of a push by Hooker to disqualify the trio for the appearance of bias.
“We could have just gone in there and appointed five people who thought exactly the same way. But I honestly feel like we worked to put together a very good panel,” Haslam told TNReport in Clarksville last week.
Gov. Haslam has made no secret of his own opposition to direct judicial elections in the past, saying he fears it would inject excessive and undue political influence into Tennessee’s judicial system. He asked lawmakers early this year to constitutionalize the current appointment-driven practice of selecting judges to clear up any confusion.
When that plan began to fall through, Haslam backed another constitutional amendment proposal to model the state’s system of selecting judges after the federal system, with the Legislature getting an opportunity to confirm judges the governor appoints. The plan now awaits approval from the General Assembly before it can be put to the voters in a referendum in 2014.
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who argues the state is currently stepping outside constitutional bounds by appointing judges, said he is wary about the governor’s appointments to the special court.
“I think it would have been nice if the governor maybe would have gone out of his way to choose somebody who didn’t have the appearance of bias. Not that those men are biased, but it leaves the appearances there because of their connections,” he said.
Tausha Carmack Alexander, TFIC’s lobbyists at the statehouse, said the group would rather see anything in place besides “direct partisan elections.”
“We believe that forcing appellate judges to run in contested elections is very costly, and it will introduce more politics into the judiciary,” she said. “Everybody wants to ensure that we have courts that are fair and impartial. You can look at other states — West Virginia, Alabama — where it costs millions of dollars to run in some of the Supreme Court races. We just don’t think that is the way to go for selecting an appellate judiciary member.”
“There is plenty of data out there that indicates how costly (statewide judicial elections) can be, and how political it can be,” Alexander continued.
Hooker is now waiting for Brown, Barker and Echols to respond to his request they recuse themselves because their “impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” A written answer is due “promptly,” according to new court rules.
Barker, also a former Supreme Court Chief Justice who now practices law in Chattanooga, declined to comment on his ability to be impartial when ruling on this case.
“I just don’t think judges ought to be talking about a matter that sits before the court,” he told TNReport, adding that his opinion will be shown in his upcoming response to Hooker’s request.
Attempts to reach Brown, who specializes in mediation and arbitration in Memphis, and Echols Wednesday morning for comment were unsuccessful as of this posting. (TNReport will update this post if we hear back from them.)
The tricky part is how to define “reasonable,” said Judge Alan Glenn, chairman of the state Judicial Ethics Committee.
“There are certainly hundreds and probably thousands of cases where there could be the appearance of a conflict,” said Glenn, who is also an appellate court judge. “The catchall consideration has got to be where the judge’s impartiality can reasonably be questioned, and that’s where minds can differ.”
Three Supreme Court judges recused themselves from the case on July 27, just as Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark and Justice William Koch had on July 16. That same day, Haslam appointed the panel, and the Court of Appeals issued its ruling on Hooker’s case, finding that the Tennessee retention election practices are constitutional. Hooker has until late September to ask the Special Supreme Court to hear his appeal to the Appellate Court’s decision.
Andrea Zelinski and Mark Engler contributed to this report.