Judicial Redistricting on Legislature’s Docket

Tennessee just got through redistricting.

But another round might be on the way. Judicial redistricting, which would change the way judges, district attorneys and public defenders are allocated throughout the state, has a bearing on the workload of judges and court workers and the efficiency of the state justice system.

The state’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. And some powerful voices in the General Assembly are saying it’s high time because while judicial maps have not changed in 30 years, the state’s population certainly has. In the past three decades, Tennessee’s population has jumped from 4.5 million to 6.4 million today.

“Rural counties have become suburban counties, and suburban counties now wrestle with issues similar to urban counties,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a statement. “Put simply, our state is a dramatically different place than it was when the last redistricting occurred. This naturally results in inefficiency and misallocation of resources.”

Sumner County, for example, makes up the 18th Judicial District. It has a population of 163,686, according to 2011 census numbers, and has one circuit court judge assigned to it. But over in Blount County, where there are 40,000 fewer people, there are two circuit court judges.

“There are certainly some oddities,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, the new chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, which would likely tackle the issue of judicial redistricting.

Kelsey pointed to Coffee County, which makes up a single judicial district, as compared to rapidly growing Williamson County, which is part of a single four-county judicial district.

Judicial redistricting is “an issue worthy of consideration,” Kelsey said.

Michele Wojciechowski, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said the office had no opinion on whether judicial districts should be redrawn.

Tennessee’s 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts. Some districts also host Criminal Courts and Probate Courts.

See all the Judicial Districts here and the state’s population by county here.

Judges of these courts are elected to eight-year terms. And that’s part of the urgency, Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, chair of the House Civil Justice Committee, told TNReport. It would be best to redraw districts before elections, he said.

“It makes sense to do it now, so that the resources can get to where they’re needed,” he said, also citing the state’s population shifts. “In ‘84, the last time this was done, I think we had two counties that had populations over 100,000,” Lundberg said. “Now there are 12 or 14.”

The debate over judicial redistricting is not a new one. Unlike legislative redistricting, it is not mandated by the constitution. And since the mid-1990s — about 10 years after the last redistricting — state officials have been debating how best to go about it — or whether to do it at all.

In 2007, the Comptroller’s Office awarded a $126,522 contract to the Justice Management Institute and George Mason University, to conduct a study of potential judicial redistricting in Tennessee.

The five-page report after the study came to this conclusion: There was no need for redistricting, but more study was needed.

From the report: “Only a few people provided any thoughts about potential benefits, namely the creation of more time available to justice professionals to process cases, lower caseloads, and reduced travel time.”

Those years may have been long enough to change some minds — at least inside Legislative Plaza.

“I think taking a fresh look at the judicial map could go a long way toward making sure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders,” Ramsey said.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@tnreport.com, on Twitter(@trentseibert) or at 615-669-9501.