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GOP Leaders Look to Limit Judicial Selection Debate

Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Speaker Beth Harwell have all said they are opposed to the popular election of judges and they now appear to be leaning toward amending the constitution to cement the current practice.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey last week reiterated his opposition to the people of Tennessee electing state Supreme Court judges, even while acknowledging the Tennessee Constitution probably requires it.

The Blountville Republican, who since 2007 has served as speaker of the Senate, said he’ll push ahead this legislative session with an effort to amend the Constitution to scrub any reference to voters choosing Supreme Court or appellate judges. Ramsey wants to replace the vexing language with phrasing that enshrines and legitimizes the so-called “Tennessee Plan,” which is the current method for appointing the state’s most powerful judges.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” The state government’s foundational document also declares, “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.”

Speaking to reporters in his Capitol Hill office Thursday, Ramsey said, “I’m not in favor of statewide election of judges. I’ve been very plain with that.”

“Yet at the same time,” continued the lieutenant governor, “I think when the words are plainly in our Constitution that judges shall be elected by qualified voters of the state, that we need to amend the Constitution and take that out.”

Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Gov. Bill Haslam signaled they would announce a unified stance on the issue within the next week. All three have said they are opposed to the popular judicial election.

Ramsey said he would discourage GOP senators from pushing alternatives to the “Tennessee Plan.”

“We don’t want to get our judges in the business of running for statewide elections, which are extremely costly and could jeopardize the integrity of our judicial branch,” Harwell told TNReport Friday.

Ramsey has said much the same, that if judges were elected the flow of money could translate into undesirable influence and “judicial activism.”

Under the “Tennessee Plan,” the governor picks from a list of candidates who are then subject to yes-no retention elections.

Proponents of election, including Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, say the Constitution calls for judges to be elected, that retention elections do not follow the drafters’ intent, and that voters deserve a direct say.

Other opponents of the current system — who would face a political challenge against a Haslam-Ramsey-Harwell triumvirate — say the state should consider adopting the federal practice: The president appoints, the Senate confirms.

“I would still prefer a thorough vetting by the Legislature,” said Sen. Mike Bell, chairman of the Government Operations Committee. “I believe that the current system gives the citizens of this state little opportunity to know who the judge is and who they’re voting for.”

4 replies on “GOP Leaders Look to Limit Judicial Selection Debate”

Voters were asked to amend the constitution to put the “Tennessee Plan” into it back in the 1970s. They rejected it. Turned out, they liked being able to elect their judges. So what did the Democratic majority in the legislature do in response to the expressed will of the people of Tennessee? They enacted the Tennessee Plan statutorily.

I suspect Ron Ramsey’s new proposed amendment, taking away the people’s constitutional right to vote, will meet a similar demise at voters’ hands if it ever gets on the ballot.

In the mean time, can we please have the elections that our constitution requires?

(As for Tennessee’s appellate courts having said these soviet-style one-candidate retention elections meet constitutional muster, please remember that all of the judges on the appellate bench got their seats through the appointment process. If they rule it to be unconstitutional, they are out of a job.)

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