Lt. Gov. May Push to Constitutionally Legitimize ‘Tennessee Plan’

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he is interested in cutting a deal with the state’s legal establishment over Tennessee’s controversial method of appointing judges.

The gist of the compromise, as Ramsey explained it Thursday, is that the constitution would be amended to specifically mandate a judicial selection processes similar to or the same as what’s already taking place under the “Tennessee Plan.”  The lieutenant governor says he believes the state’s current processes for appointing judges are in fact unconstitutional. However, he doesn’t favor the people of Tennessee directly electing judges, as the constitution would appear to require.

But Mark Norris, the GOP majority leader in the state Senate, said this week no one’s rushing to put in motion Ramsey’s proposal to edit out the part of the constitution he thinks the judges aren’t following anyway. Legislators may not have time to fully vet the issue during this legislative session, jammed as it already is with complex and controversial bills, Norris said.

He added, though that “plenty of folks…like the (Tennessee Plan) as we have it. It’s pretty popular.”

“It shouldn’t be difficult for folks to consider conforming (the state constitution) to the system we have,” said the Republican from Collierville, himself an attorney. Norris added that he expects an amendment may also include provisions to allow the Senate to confirm the appointments, much like current practice for federal judges.

Tennessee Supreme Court justices and appellate judges are now appointed by a nominating committee, then hand-picked by the governor. Those judges then face “retention elections” after eight years on the bench. In the retention election, voters offer a “yes” or “no” answer on whether the judge should get a new eight-year term. They never face actual opposition on the ballot.

But some lawmakers, such as Rep. Mike Bell of Riceville, believe judges should be subject to elections much the same way legislators are in order to satisfy to Tennessee Constitution.

The Tennessee Constitution declares, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” Judges on the “inferior courts,” according to the state constitution, “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”

Ramsey last week broke up a tied committee vote on a constitutional-amendment resolution that would require all judges be subject to popular elections. The lieutenant governor cast a vote in favor of the measure, which now advances to another Senate committee. It has yet to move in the House of Representatives.

Ramsey told reporters he disagrees with the idea of electing judges, but said he made the vote to pressure advocates of the Tennessee Plan, like Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark — who has lobbied against the idea of popular election of judges — to acknowledge that something needs to be done to move the state into compliance with the dictates of the state government’s guiding document.

In fact, Ramsey  said he informed Clark he “will stand on a mountain and scream” for formally erasing the Tennessee Constitution’s judicial-election provisions if Clark agrees to join in unison.

Clark has been publicly defending the current Tennessee Plan, and warning against calls to make judges directly accountable to the people, like politicians.  At the annual Tennessee Press Association conference in Nashville back in February she compared electing judges to letting fans pick sports referees.

“What if the Titans could run a slate of referees and the Colts could run a slate of referees?” she said in early February. “Let’s say the Titans won…Their referees would show up on the field. Titans fans might be happy, but I’m not sure the Colts fans would be very happy. I’m sure the referees could say, ‘I take my oath. I’m hired just to administer the rules, and it doesn’t matter if this team spent $5 million or that team spent $4 million. I’m going to call it the right way.'”

She’s also been meeting with lawmakers to make her case.

Ramsey, who said he talked over the deal with Chief Justice Clark on Wednesday, has not yet heard back as to whether she’s on board with his proposal.

While the issue could move full speed ahead this spring, the constitutional amendment doesn’t have to be OK’d by the General Assembly until the end of the 2012 legislative session. It will have to be approved again in the 108th General Assembly that runs from 2013 to 2014 before it can be put to voters at the next gubernatorial election.