Haslam Reconstitutes Judicial Nominating Panel

Following last week’s state attorney general opinion offering him some legal cover to continue appointing judges if he chooses, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has issued an executive order establishing a commission to do just that.

The governor on Thursday essentially raised from the dead the Judicial Nominating Commission that ceased operations earlier this year when the state Legislature failed to re-authorize it. The new panel is called the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments.

In his order, Haslam lays out the guidelines for the commission. Basically, they’re the same as the old guidelines that governed the now-defunct commission, which sunset June 30.

“I would like to keep the process virtually the same for selecting judges in Tennessee the same (sic) until Tennesseans have the opportunity to vote on the proposed constitutional amendment in 2014. This commission allows us to continue to select the highest quality people and ensure a stable and effective judiciary,” Haslam said in a press release.

Most of the names on the new commission are the same, too. “The 11 members of the JNC whose terms did not expire with the termination of the JNC will continue to serve on the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments,” the Haslam release stated.

The new Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments will expire on Nov. 5, 2014, when Tennessee voters will decide if they want to adopt a constitutional amendment proposed by the Legislature that establishes a new system for selecting appeals court and Supreme Court judges modeled on that used by the federal government.

Haslam’s office said the governor will appoint six more of his Commission for Judicial Appointments “in consultation with” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Speaker of the House Beth Harwell.

Hooker’s Appeal Still Pending

The governor’s executive order comes as an appeal of the constitutionality of the current mode of judicial selection in Tennessee is pending.

On July 19, a special Supreme Court selected by Gov. Haslam heard arguments from John J. Hooker on behalf of himself in his case against Haslam claiming Tennessee’s judicial nomination process violates the state’s constitution.

Hooker, a long-time Tennessee political figure and advocate for judicial elections, argues that the Tennessee Constitution clearly states that all judges in the state are to be elected by the people, not picked by a special commission appointed by politicians.

The governor’s executive order “is premature”  at a minimum, Hooker said. “I would like to say to the governor, respectfully, that he should wait until the special supreme court that he appointed decides this case,” he said.

More broadly, Hooker sees the current system as “a gigantic fraud.”

“This notion that the Legislature’s got the power to give the governor the power to appoint judges is a disgrace to the Legislature and a disgrace for the governor and a disgrace for every judge who accepts it,” said Hooker.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also says, “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.”

Hooker said regardless of the outcome of the case before the special Supreme Court, he, like other critics of the current system, expects voters next fall will reject the General Assembly’s proposal to formally erase the wording from the state constitution that some interpret to mean judges should win voter approval before assuming a seat on the bench.

“The people are not going to give up their right to vote for these judges any more than they’d give up their right to vote for governor or a member of the Legislature,” Hooker predicted.

The administrative office of the state’s court system announced Thursday that with the launch of the Governor’s Commission on Judicial Appointments, applications are now being accepted for the Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Janice M. Holder and the Court of Appeals seat held by Judge David R. Farmer, both of whom have said they won’t seek new term appointments. Their departures will create vacancies starting Sept. 1, 2014.

“The Commission is now accepting applications until noon October 31 for the two vacancies. The commission will hold a public hearing on November 12 in Jackson for the Court of Appeals opening and on November 13 in Nashville for the Supreme Court opening,” according to TNCourts.gov.