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Odom Praises Nashville Police Chief for Addressing Domestic Violence Issues

Press release from the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus; June 18, 2014: 

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – State Representative Gary Odom (D-Nashville) has released the following statement praising Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson for his work in trying to protect victims of domestic violence and exposing problems in the courts:

“I want to thank Chief Anderson for exposing serious problems in a system that is supposed to protect domestic violence victims. Nashvillians all over have had their faith in the justice system of our city shaken after seeing the utter failure the court to protect victims of domestic violence.

“While I fully support the efforts by Judge Higgins and Chief Anderson to address these problems internally, we have to do everything in our power to ensure that this behavior does not happen again. I am working now on legislation that will take the discretion to release domestic abusers early from the hands of judges and require that those arrested for domestic violence serve a mandatory 12 hour cooling-off period with no exceptions. I pledge to introduce that legislation before the start of session next year.

“Victims of domestic violence all too often live in a state of constant fear. It is sickening that this court has failed to do everything in its power to ensure that no harm would come of a woman brave enough to stand up to her attacker and call the police.

“I am proud to stand with Chief Anderson and promise to support him in whatever way I can to restore confidence in our criminal justice system.”

Throughout his career, ensuring the safety of domestic violence victims has been a priority of Rep. Odom’s. This year, he co-sponsored the “Survivor’s Safety Bill,” which requires persons convicted of a second, third, or subsequent domestic assault involving bodily injury to serve the minimum sentence day for day and consecutively.

In addition, Rep. Odom has sponsored legislation to require the Administrative Office of the Courts to keep statistics on domestic violence, require that orders of protection be entered in the Tennessee Crime Information System, and worked to prohibit the disclosure and identification of domestic violence shelter locations in the service of process and court proceedings.

Tennessee’s Third Parties Take Fight To Court

Tennessee’s system is rigged to keep third parties from becoming recognized, allege lawsuits filed by three political parties in federal court.

The Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties of Tennessee filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Elections Coordinator Mark Goins alleging Tennessee places places “an unconstitutional burden” on smaller political parties, according to Courthouse News Service.

The parties claim state law places stiffer requirements on minor political parties than on the two major statewide parties, in effect keeping the third parties from being fully recognized.

The Libertarians claimed Tennessee’s deadlines for petition signature collection for special general elections are unconstitutional. The Green and Constitution parties went further in their suits and claimed requirements for an affidavit swearing not to support the overthrow of the government, petition signatures and number of votes for minor parties are unconstitutional.

State law requires third parties to gather signatures from 2.5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election of governor, to be recognized and appear on the ballot.

Then to be recognized as a “statewide political party,” third-party candidates are required to receive 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election of governor.

Parties recognized as “statewide” have four years to satisfy their requirements, while minor parties “have only the election on the year in which they become ‘recognized minor parties’ to attain the status of ‘statewide political parties,'” the complaint states.

The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment and attorney’s fees and costs. They are represented by Darrell L. Castle of Memphis.

TN Supreme Court Adopts Changes to Attorney Discipline Rules

Press release from the Tennessee Courts System; August 30, 2013:

The Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted substantial changes to the rule that governs the discipline of attorneys in this state.

Supreme Court Rule 9 is one of nearly 60 rules that the Court enforces regarding everything from how court records are kept to rules of professional conduct. The changes to Rule 9 come about after more than two years of work that included input from attorneys and professional organizations from throughout the state.

The changes are so substantial that the Court is adopting a new 56-page rule in its entirety, rather than amending portions of the previous rule, which is the customary practice.

Some of the more notable changes to the rule include:

  • Reinstatement from all attorney suspensions, administrative and disciplinary, now requires an order of the Supreme Court.
  • A separate reinstatement fee is now imposed for reinstatement from an administrative suspension.
  • The rule contains comprehensive provisions regarding the appointment of a receiver attorney for attorneys who become unable to practice law.
  • The new rule clarifies procedures for the selection of and duties of practice monitors assigned as a condition of public discipline.
  • Procedures have been clarified for assessment of costs of any disciplinary proceedings to an attorney who has been the subject of the discipline.
  • The new rule spells out more clearly provisions regarding confidentiality of documents related to disciplinary proceedings.
  • The selection process for board members and recusal standards for both disciplinary hearing panel members and board members have been clarified in the new rule.
  • Also, Supreme Court Rule 9 references several other Supreme Court Rules, some of which will be amended to reflect the changes in Rule 9.

What the new rule does not change is grounds for attorney discipline and the forms of discipline that attorneys are subject to, such as private reprimand, public censure, suspension, and disbarment.

The rule regarding administration of discipline to attorneys was last revised in 2006. The new Supreme Court Rule 9 goes into effect January 1, 2014.

Click here to read a copy of the Court’s Order and the new Rule 9 in its entirety. The updated rule also includes an appendix that cross references the old rule to the revised provisions in the new rule.

Ramsey Soliciting Ideas for New Judicial District Maps

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is expected today to announce he’s seeking input from the legal community and the general public on what reworked state judicial district maps should look like.

Tennessee’s judicial districts have not been redrawn since 1984. And with districts set to elect their district attorneys general, public defenders and state trial court judges this August, some powerful figures in the General Assembly are saying that this legislative session represents the best chance to improve the efficiency of the districts through redistricting.

“The last time our judicial districts were updated Waylon Jennings and Michael Jackson were at the top of the charts,” Ramsey told TNReport in a statement. “Tennessee is a far different place that it was in 1984. Formerly rural counties have become thoroughly suburban, and our suburban counties now confront problems similar to urban areas. We desperately need to take a fresh look at this judicial map to ensure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders.”

At a forum sponsored by the Associated Press last week, Ramsey said Tennessee’s judicial districts are “completely out of whack.”

Ramsey added that he isn’t particularly looking forward to the undertaking. He indicated the process of legislative redistricting last year was a bigger headache than he’d anticipated.

“Really, there’s no political upside to this,” the East Tennessee Republican said. “It is something that I just think is good government and efficiency and making sure that the judiciary operates as efficiently as we do.”

Ramsey also said that, in addition to the public at large, he is requesting input from those that would be directly affected, such as the Trial Judges Association, the District Attorneys General Conference and the Tennessee Bar Association.

Officials with the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts have said they have no opinion on redistricting, but Ramsey has said that the process will likely be controversial.

The debate over judicial redistricting is not a new one. Unlike legislative redistricting, it is not mandated by the Tennessee 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 (pdf).

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.”

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

Memphis Library Cards OK for Voter ID, Court Finds

Cards issued by the Memphis Public Library are acceptable identification for voting purposes, the state Court of Appeals determined in a ruling today that also upheld Tennessee’s photo ID law.

The 18-page opinion was a partial victory for the city, which had pushed to have the new law declared unconstitutional but, if it was upheld, to force election officials to accept the library cards, which include a photo.

The court determined that the city of Memphis qualifies as “a branch, department, agency or entity of this state,” the standard written into law in 2011 by the Legislature. Lawmakers said voters could cast ballots using photo IDs issued by such entities, or by other states or the federal government.

The city in its argument for finding the law unconstitutional had said it imposed undue costs on voters and violated the equal protection clause since voters casting mail-in ballots are not required to show photo ID.

The court dismissed those assertions.

The requirement that prospective voters present photographic identification to vote in person is not an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote under the Tennessee Constitution.

More from the decision:

In absentee voting, the voter does not appear before an election official and, therefore, cannot present photographic identification.

Such a requirement in the context of absentee voting would be nonsensical. We hold that requiring in-person voters to provide photographic identification while not requiring absentee voters to do so does not violate Article XI, Sec. 8 of the Tennessee Constitution.

Rep. Debra Maggart, who sponsored the photo ID law, criticized the decision.

“While I am encouraged our law was ruled constitutional, the fact the Court decided to add to it is disappointing,” Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said in a statement. “Not only has the Court gone beyond the clear intent of the law by allowing library cards, it has also created an exception for the city of Memphis that falls below the standard for the rest of Tennessee. This is the definition of ‘legislating from the bench’ and, frankly, is unacceptable.”

Maggart won’t be around to push back against the court with any legislation after being defeated in the August primary by newcomer Courtney Rogers.

Two GOP lawmakers who will be, and will wield far-reaching power to shape any such legislation, responded to the ruling.

“I might not have ruled that way, but they are the court. They are the law of the land,” House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said in an interview with TNReport. Harwell said she would need to review the court’s decision before commenting further but that she would not be surprised if the Legislature took action.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said the court had not properly interpreted the will of the Legislature.

“While allowing library cards clearly violates the legislative intent of this law, the court rightly affirmed the law’s constitutionality,” Ramsey, R-Blountville, said in a statement.

Tennessee Citizen Action, a left-leaning advocacy group that has opposed the law, cheered the portion of the ruling allowing for library cards.

“It should send a clear message to the Tennessee State Legislature that their attempts last session to limit allowable IDs to only a handful was both restrictive and excessive,” Mary Mancini, executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, said in a statement.

Most Tennesseans support the law, according to a Middle Tennessee State University poll taken earlier this year.

The state’s photo ID law is among the strictest in the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states require photo identification at the polls. In six others, photo ID laws are being litigated or still require approval from the Justice Department.

Nineteen states require nonphoto identification at the polls, according to the NCSL.

Effort to Legitimize ‘Tennessee Plan’ Hits Dead End

The future of how top judges in Tennessee are assigned to the bench is in limbo now that a plan asking voters to formally endorse the status quo died on Capitol Hill this year.

Despite vocal support from the state’s three most powerful elected Republicans, lawmakers abandoned a plan to run the current judicial selection process by voters. Instead, the Legislature at this time appears to favor giving itself a confirmation role on judicial appointments, as is done at the federal level.

Lawmakers are looking to end debate once and for all about whether the state is following the intent of the Tennessee Constitution, which calls for judicial elections.

The Legislature considered several plans this year, including one that would require popularly electing judges. The only proposal that gained traction was an amendment to establish a new system giving the Legislature the authority to reject judges the governor wants to appoint — an effort that would ultimately need voter approval. The effort to legitimize the state’s current practice — supported by both chambers’ GOP speakers and the governor — failed in the House.

“I voted for both of them to keep them alive so we can try to get something on the ballot on 2014,” said Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, the Government Operations Committee chairman who said he’d prefer popularly electing judges.

“I want to do all I can to put pressure to see that we come up with a Constitutional amendment…(so that) the people have the final say on how we choose our judges,” he said.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he supports the new plan which lets the Legislature approve judicial candidates — although he prefers sticking with the current plan. But the governor unequivocally opposes voters directly electing judges.

Meanwhile, many prominent legislative Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, have said it is clear to them the state Constitution in fact does explicitly require direct and contested judicial elections. And yet they, like Haslam, oppose statewide judicial elections. They instead want to amend the state constitution to erase the seeming disconnect between what the Tennessee Constitution mandates and what the state currently does.

Lawmakers, judges and constitutional scholars have argued for years over whether the yes-no “retention” elections meet the spirit and letter of the Constitution.

The Constitution says, “Judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state,” and adds that “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.”

The state’s powerful legal establishment likes things the way they are, and argues that as long as lawyers and judges are fine with the system, elected politicians ought to leave it alone.

“We never believed, we still don’t believe, that the Constitution has to be amended,” said Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. “They ought to keep that and not be experimenting with other ways of doing it.”

The wheels could come off of the state’s judicial selection machine if lawmakers push too hard for change, said Ramsaur. So far, lawmakers have already shortened the lifespan of the Judicial Nominating Commission which now recommends judges for the bench. The panel is set to disband, by July 1, 2013.

Without the commission, Ramsaur argues, there’s no specific provision for exactly how to seat judges.

Bell says he’ll likely extend the panel one year at time to keep the cogs in the machine moving so long as lawmakers advance the constitutional rewrite. He said, however, that he’s leaving open the option of dissolving the commission should the measure stall.

Haslam, Ramsey and House Speaker Harwell early this year called for lawmakers to constitutionalize the state’s current practice of selecting judges, known as the “Tennessee Plan,” saying the system has a proven track record and the state ought to make sure its guiding document agrees with current practice.

The Tennessee Plan requires the governor appoint Supreme and Appellate court judges from a list of recommendations from the nominating commission. Those judges then face yes-no retention elections to renew their eight-year terms.

Their plan, SJR183, to constitutionally legitimize the current practice passed the Senate 21-9 but never made it to a vote on the House floor.

Instead, lawmakers favored refashioning a portion of the state constitution to resemble the federal practice of picking judges, namely where the President appoints and Senate confirms.

SJR710 lets the governor handpick top judges who then need to be OK’d by the General Assembly. Those judges would then be subject to yes-no retention elections to renew their terms.

The plan passed easily in both chambers, with a 70-27 vote in the House and 22-9 win in the Senate — about two-thirds of both chambers. Haslam says he’s behind the plan, but admits he’s worried giving lawmakers the opportunity to block the governor’s appointments, as is done in Washington to presidential appointments, which can lead to political games.

“In some ways you can say the federal system has worked well. On the other hand, it hadn’t sometimes when you’ve had one party hold up the President’s nomination for purely political reasons or vote against them for purely political reasons,” said Haslam. “In designing how the legislative confirmation process would work, I want to make certain that we have a process that is as free from politics as possible.”

Because the measure seeks to edit the Constitution, lawmakers will need to approve it again with two-thirds majority before the 2014 general election where voters will have the final say. If voters reject the change, Haslam says he wants to continue using the Tennessee Plan without skipping a beat.

Ramsey Concedes Judges Bill Is Dead For This Year

While he insisted earlier this legislative session it was important that the state’s practice of selecting judges be made constitutional, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Thursday there isn’t enough time to tackle the issue this year.

“We got started late on that this year, no doubt about it,” he told TNReport. “It will have to pass next year.”

Several proposals to rejigger how judges are chosen have stalled, including one to eliminate the constitutional requirement that judges be elected.

Another proposal would have voters decide whether the state Legislature should figure out a way to hand-pick judges.

The state’s current process for picking judges, dubbed the Tennessee Plan, calls for nominees to be put forward by a selection committee, with the governor making the final appointments to the Tennessee Supreme Court and the appeals court. Judges serve eight-year terms, then face elections to retain their posts.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris predicted earlier this session that there may not be enough time to seriously consider Ramsey’s proposal, which would have started the process of amending the state constitution in line with the Tennessee Plan. The bill is in committee.

“It’s underway, but if we’re trying to get to adjournment next weekend, there’s just not enough time,” the Collierville Republican said. “We’ve got all next year as well.”

Putting constitutional amendments on the ballot is an arduous process. It requires approval from two general assemblies back-to-back, then a public vote.

Ramsey’s bill is not the only constitutional amendment tied up in the final days of the session.

Sen. Mae Beavers wants to ask voters if they’d rather elect the attorney general. The Supreme Court now makes that appointment.

She’s postponed action on the bill twice in the last week, saying she wanted to make sure she has all the votes needed to advance the proposal to the floor. It’s scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.

“I haven’t polled members. That’s one reason why I rolled it to make sure I have the votes there,” she said.

Chief Justice Clark’s Remarks to the Tennessee Press Association

Speech by Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark (“State of the Judiciary” – pdf) before the Tennessee Press Association, February 11, 2011 (Available at TNCourts.gov):

Welcome & Introductions Members of the Tennessee Press Association and special guests – it is an honor and privilege to speak with you today. I recognize that it is a rare occasion to find a judge, let alone a Supreme Court justice, in a room full of reporters. Given the nature of the courts, it can be difficult for a judge to engage in a dialogue with the press. However, I do welcome this opportunity to speak with you about the courts in Tennessee, the challenges we face as a judiciary, and how the judges and journalists can work together to further educate the public about the third and equal branch of government. I believe the state of the judiciary is strong; but its greatest weakness is the lack of understanding by the general public.

The Importance of public awareness about the judiciary Although the courts and the press can sometimes be at odds, our worlds are not too different. Both journalists and the judiciary face considerable changes as the world around us evolves at a rapid pace.

Printed papers and magazines are quickly giving way to online media. And, with the advent of social networking, news can be broken with a mere 140 characters. Deadlines are getting shorter, news is getting faster; and, like many other businesses, you are forced to do all of this with less and less.

Likewise, the courts face an expectation of immediacy and instant online access to everything from dockets to court opinions. And, just like you, our staff members have taken to tweeting the release of a new opinion or important announcement.

With all of these advances, comes its own set of challenges. The media is now chasing attention in a world where there are so many distractions and competing ways to get information. Yet, the need for factual reporting and clear analysis of important issues has never been greater.

And the courts are fighting to keep up in a world that is moving at a breakneck pace. Justice is many things, but oftentimes, it is not swift. Certainly, litigation sometimes takes too long, costs too much, and is too complicated. The public grows weary of this without fully understanding that the careful march of fair and equal justice takes time and deliberation.

The courts also face a crisis of an undereducated population that does not understand the rule of law and the constitutional obligation of the judicial branch to protect the rights guaranteed by our founding fathers. Sadly, the operation of our courts remains a mystery to those who have not passed through our doors as many Tennesseans today don’t have the benefit of a required civics education.

But, Tennesseans are not alone. In a recent survey by Findlaw.com, only 35 percent of Americans could name one U.S. Supreme Court justice and a mere ONE PERCENT of Americans could name all nine justices.

Meanwhile, I am quite certain a majority of Americans could name the judges of American Idol or Dancing with the Stars.

This sad reality plagues not only our justice system, but government in general. As a former educator, I firmly believe that education leads to a more informed and engaged society.

The media plays an integral role in informing and educating the public about how the system works, and when it doesn’t. A number of you spend considerable time in our courtrooms, and for that, we are grateful.

The courts rely on those of you in this room to convey the work we do as arbiters of justice. It is up to you to make the people in this state aware of the battles that take place in the hallowed halls of justice each and every day.

Admittedly, the law and our courts can be complicated and difficult to understand. And, the issues that we face are rarely black and white. The challenge in covering the courts is that there is not always a clear winner or loser. Despite all of this, emphasis must still be placed on getting it right. We place this important task in your hands and we are committed to working with you to help Tennesseans better understand the essential role the courts play in state government.

How the budget shortfall has impacted the courts One of our current challenges as a judiciary is an ever-shrinking budget. The judiciary, like the other branches of government, has had to make difficult decisions to help ease the state’s budget deficit while continuing to serve the public.

At the governor’s request, we have reduced our recurring budget by more than 21 percent in the past two years. Although our budget makes up less than half a percent of the state’s overall budget, these reductions have had a profound impact on how we operate the court system.

As part of these reductions, we have eliminated almost 40 positions across the state – including appellate court clerks and attorneys, court reporters and staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts. We have also closed the three public law libraries housed in the state’s three Supreme Court buildings, reduced our office space and restructured our court reporting and senior judge programs.

Despite these budget cuts, I am proud to say that the members of the judiciary have done an excellent job of pulling together to ensure that Tennesseans continue to receive superior service in our courtrooms across the state.

While it is regrettable to make budget cuts, we are committed to sharing the responsibility for trimming the state’s budget. We have learned to do more with less, and we are committed to maintaining the same level of service regardless of the additional budget reductions we may have to make for the next fiscal year.

Improving Access to Justice in our state The nation’s economic crisis has also furthered the need for access to justice. Now, more than ever, low-income Tennesseans are unable to obtain the necessary legal assistance when encountering civil matters.

In today’s troubled economic climate, the need for civil legal services among Tennessee’s indigent and working poor families can only be expected to increase as they face legal problems caused by unemployment, predatory loans, uninsured medical bills, domestic violence, evictions, and foreclosures. The issues confronting low- income people require new solutions and an increased need for existing services.

It is a common misconception that low-income citizens are entitled to legal assistance for civil matters, in addition to criminal issues. Sadly, this is not the case. Only one in five income-eligible people will receive the legal help they need.

We have 75 very dedicated legal aid attorneys in Tennessee, but they simply are not able to assist all of the many low-income Tennesseans who encounter legal problems on a daily basis. While legal aid groups, law schools, bar associations and law firms that have worked diligently to address this issue, there is still much work that must be done to tackle the unmet legal needs of Tennesseans. We must ensure that all people – rich or poor, young or old – have proper access to our court system.

As a result of this legal needs crisis, the Supreme Court has declared Access to Justice our number one strategic priority. Since announcing this initiative in December 2008, we have held public meetings across the state to better understand how the judiciary can better meet the legal needs of low-income citizens.

We also created the Access to Justice Commission, a group of 10 attorneys, business and community leaders, who are serving as our partners in this important endeavor. Under our direction, the Access to Justice Commission developed a strategic plan last year to guide our efforts in the coming years.

We have made a number of rule changes that will encourage more lawyers to provide free or reduced-cost legal advice to those who need it most.

Just a few weeks ago, the Court hosted a statewide pro bono summit with more than 100 of the state’s top attorneys and community leaders to discuss ways to improve pro bono efforts across the state. During the event, participants explored a number of issues, such as encouraging increased corporate pro bono program participation, providing legal services to rural areas, expanding assistance to those with language and intellectual disabilities, and collaborating with libraries, faith-based organizations and other community groups to provide needed services.

At the summit, we also announced how we are using new technologies to provide greater access to our courts. In the coming months, we will unveil our Justice for All website, which will provide information about pro bono resources across the state for both pro se litigants and attorneys and community members who are willing to help.

We also announced the development of an attorney email bank that will allow Tennesseans to receive free legal advice from volunteer attorneys. The site will allow users to submit legal questions that can then be answered by volunteer attorneys from across the state. This site, which is being developed by the Tennessee Bar Association and Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, will be launched this spring.

We are working on our own new, enhanced website that will serve as an important source of information for the public and the media. And we are planning to equip our 3 Supreme Court buildings with technology necessary to allow live video streaming of appellate court arguments.

Although we have made great strides toward our goal of achieving greater access to justice, there is still much work to be done to address the legal needs of low-income citizens.

The importance of fair and impartial courts The most basic obligation of state courts is to resolve the

disputes brought before them. For the good of our citizens and our state, it is of utmost importance that our courts remain fair and impartial. The decisions that are made in our courts can have a considerable impact on the livelihood and wellbeing of individuals, families and businesses. We do not take this responsibility lightly.

As judges, we are bound to follow the constitution and laws of our state and country. We do not have the authority to make decisions as we please. Justice is not the guarantee of a particular outcome in a particular case; it is the assurance that each dispute is resolved based on its facts and within the confines of the law. In this respect we are a lot like referees and umpires.

Does anyone know what Phil Luckett and Jim Joyce have in common?

You might remember Phil Luckett from the Music City Miracle game that landed the Titans in the Super Bowl. Mr. Luckett was the referee who reviewed the instant replay of the infamous kickoff return that resulted in a touchdown for the Titans. After reviewing the play, Mr. Luckett concluded that there was not enough evidence to overturn the ruling on the field that Frank Wycheck made a legal, lateral pass to Kevin Dyson.

Those of us who are Titans fans were thrilled with the outcome and believe Mr. Luckett made the right call. However, I’m quite certain that there are Buffalo Bills fans who, to this day, think otherwise.

Jim Joyce was the umpire for the Tigers and Indians game last year where Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Gallaraga had almost thrown perfect game. With two outs in the 9th Inning, Gallaraga was one batter away from a perfect game. However, the next batter hit an easy grounder to first base and it appeared that the batter should have been out. But, Mr. Joyce called the batter safe. Although most of us watching the game would agree that Gallaraga threw a perfect game that night, the record books do not reflect that.

Each of these referees had to make some very difficult decisions in each situation. And I’m confident that the referees and umpires had done their best to make the right call on the field, even if we don’t always agree with them.

Now, let’s consider for a moment if we were able to donate money to elect referees for sporting events. Let’s say the Titans ownership paid the largest sum of money and got their guys on the field. Although Titans fans would be thrilled with that, I’m quite certain that the Colts would have a tough time thinking those particular referees could be unbiased when we played each other.

Judges are a lot like referees. We review decisions made “on the field” and have to make tough calls based on how a particular play follows the rules of the game. Our decisions aren’t always popular and there are bound to be people who disagree, no matter what the outcome. But, we stay true to our commitment to uphold the law.

The people of Tennessee deserve to have their cases heard based without fear of prejudice, politics or pressure from powerful interest groups influencing the outcome. Justice is not served when court decisions are used to advance an agenda or reward a contributor.

Consider what happened in the Caperton v. Massey case that came out of West Virginia, a state that holds partisan elections for its appellate courts. In this case, a $50 million jury verdict was appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. A justice on the bench did not recuse himself from the case, despite receiving $3 Million in campaign funds from the CEO of the lead defendant.

The same justice then cast the deciding vote in favor of his campaign donor’s company, overturning the trial court verdict. The U.S. Supreme Court has since overturned this ruling. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion and stated:

“We conclude that there is a serious risk of actual bias – based on objective and reasonable perceptions – when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent.”

The majority of Americans agree with Justice Kennedy. According to a poll by USA Today, More than 90% believe judges should not hear cases involving individuals or groups that contributed to their campaign.

Partisan elections of appellate courts put judges in a precarious position. Despite the best of intentions, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent powerful influence from seeping into the courtroom.

Only nine states in the country hold partisan elections for their Supreme Courts. Tennessee is one of 24 states that use a merit selection and retention election system for choosing its Supreme Court justices.

This merit-based system method offers the best of both worlds – the selection of a judge based upon an individual’s qualifications and voter participation following a performance evaluation of each judge.

Should we abandon this system, Tennessee runs the risk of turning into states like Alabama and Illinois where recent campaigns for a single seat on the Supreme Court have topped $8 million dollars. In these states, just like West Virginia, justice is served to the highest bidder.

As retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once stated, “The founders realized there has to be someplace where being right is more important than being popular or powerful, and where fairness trumps strength. And in our country, that place is supposed to be the courtroom.”

Closing and Thanks In closing, I would like to share a quote by the great Walter

Lippman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist in the mid-1900s – “He has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable, or dangerous to do so.”

I think this statement bears great relevance for both journalists and judges. Our tasks are not always easy and the things we write are not always popular. However, we must stand firm in our commitment to do what’s right and honorable for the people of our great state.

I commend you for the work you do every day to inform and educate the public. We are blessed to live in a nation with a free and independent press. I do not take this privilege lightly, and I’m certain that neither do you.

Even though the courts and the press may not always agree, we both share in the desire to inform and educate the public. I look forward to working with you to further our goals of educating Tennesseans about the importance of courts and government in our state.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak with you today.

Tea Party Wants People’s Choice for Top State Litigator

Now that Republicans are firmly in charge of both legislative chambers, members of the Senate majority are hopeful they can take the first official step toward making Tennessee’s most elite lawyer an elected government post.

And that’s good news to state tea party groups.

More than a dozen leaders from various organizations and elements of the populist conservative protest movement across Tennessee met up on Capitol Hill Wednesday to begin lobbying for a short list of priorities, among which is amending the Tennessee Constitution to provide for direct election of the state attorney general.

Tennessee is the only place in the country where the attorney general is appointed by the state’s supreme court.

A handful of Republican lawmakers pushed the issue last year after state Attorney General Robert Cooper declined to cooperate with requests to join a federal law suit challenging the U.S. government’s constitutional authority to require that all citizens obtain health care. The measure passed 19-14 in the Senate last year but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, who carried the bill last session, plans to file an identical version this year.

Beavers has yet to find a member of the House to carry her bill: Last year’s sponsor, Riceville Republican Mike Bell, has graduated to the Senate. But once that matter is addressed, Beavers anticipates GOP dominance will ensure the bill enjoys rather smooth sailing to the governor’s desk.

Because the measure requires changing the state constitution, the same bill, if passed this session, would need to be approved again — but on a two-thirds majority vote — by lawmakers in the 108th General Assembly in 2013 or 2014. The amendment could then be put before Tennessee voters in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

The five-member Supreme Court appointed Attorney General Cooper in 2006. He is serving an eight-year term.

“I think it’s been a popular issue in this last election with the attorney general saying he would not represent the voters of Tennessee in terms of the Health Freedom Act,” said Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “He’s kind of twice removed from the voters.”

Craig Fitzhugh, leader of the badly outnumbered House Democratic Caucus, doesn’t see the current arrangement for selecting the state AG as in any way broken. And therefore it isn’t in need of fixing, he said.

“Hopefully we’re not just talking about this because of one particular decision or non decision by our current attorney general,” said Rep. Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “You don’t want to throw everything away because of one particular decision that an individual makes whether he or she is an attorney general or a legislator or a judge or a governor for that matter.”

The attorney general’s office isn’t too keen on the idea either. Cooper’s spokeswoman, Sharon Curtis-Flair, suggested that an unintended consequence of injecting electoral political considerations directly into the office might be that legislators and the governor’s staff would be reluctant to make requests or share potentially sensitive information with an AG who has a competing political agenda, thus devaluing his or her advice and possibly leading to costly litigation for the state.

Cooper’s office has also floated the argument that the election of an attorney general will merely result in the state getting the best campaign cash collector, and not necessarily the best lawyer for the job.

Those objections aren’t terribly convincing to tea partiers. They perceive that the existing system indeed is flawed — that the attorney general in Tennessee is accountable to nobody in particular, and there’s nothing in place to realistically guard against him operating simply on his own ideological biases with little regard for the wishes of a democratic majority of the people.

“Across the country, Americans have felt that we’ve created a monster and set it loose without being responsive to us. We’re trying to reign it back in, and this is just one little facet of where we feel in Tennessee that an office has run away from the will of the people,” said attorney and Fayette County Tea Party member Hal Rounds.

Another alternative, say tea party leaders, would be for the Legislature to reassign the attorney general’s litigation duties to the solicitor general, who would be elected and would have the authority to enter into law suits, like fighting federal health care reforms, while the attorney general focuses on other activities such as issuing objective legal opinions to lawmakers and the governor.

“We seek either an amendment to the State Constitution that will make the Attorney General installed by a popular vote; or, in the alternative, by reassigning the duty of litigating on behalf of the State to the newly separated office of Solicitor General, which office will be an elected position,” read the Tennessee Tea Party‘s 2011 priority list.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who ran for governor in 2010 with the backing of many Tennessee tea partiers, is an important ally favoring direct elections for attorney general. Ramsey said he’s also intrigued by the group’s solicitor general revamp idea, but stopped short of endorsing it, saying he needed more time to study the issue.

Electing the attorney general is one of the top issues on the tea party agendas all across Tennessee — along with pushing the state to take aggressive steps to wean itself off federal subsidies, resist unfunded or what many consider unconstitutional federal mandates, better enforce and abide by constitutional law in general, and more thoroughly educate public school students about American history, government and the ideals of the nation’s founders.