Gov. Bill Haslam said Friday he plans to appoint replacements to a special court assigned to rule on the constitutionality of the state’s judicial selection method after three former members recused themselves for fear of appearing biased.
The governor contends the three original appointees could have stayed on the bench despite challenges to their objectivity because they are entitled to their personal opinion about whether judges should be elected, the central issue of the lawsuit at hand.
“Judges have opinions on things all the time, and I honestly think each one of them could have still rendered a very impartial and fair decision,” Haslam told reporters before a ribbon cutting at Saks Fulfillment Center in La Vergne.
Meanwhile, Haslam’s adversary in the lawsuit is looking to knock off another one of the governor’s original appointees to the Special Supreme Court due to what he sees could be a potential conflict of interest.
John Jay Hooker, a longtime critic of the state’s merit-based system for selecting judges, filed the lawsuit against the governor and other high-ranking officials. He says the governor unconstitutionally appointed a judge to the Court of Criminal Appeals because the judge was not popularly elected.
He told TNReport he expects to file a motion challenging Special Court Justice Andrée Sophia Blumstein’s impartiality. He said her role on the editorial board for the Tennessee Bar Journal, a publication of the Tennessee Bar Association, poses a conflict because the association is in favor of the current practice for selecting judges, called the Tennessee Plan.
“I think the time has come for it to be obvious this is fixed, and it’s a battle between right and wrong,” Hooker told TNReport.
Blumstein declined to comment Friday.
The Tennessee Plan, which is now used to select appellate and high court judges, requires the governor to appoint judges, who then face yes-no retention elections every eight years.
Many, including Hooker, believe the Tennessee Constitution requires that judges at all levels be popularly elected, even though the Legislature and the Supreme Court have chosen not to follow that interpretation.
The Constitution declares, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also states, “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.”
Three of Haslam’s five appointees to the Special Supreme Court recused themselves from ruling on the case last week, saying their ties to Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts could taint the integrity of the court as it rules on the case.
TFIC is a vocal opponent of popularly electing judges, a practice the group fears would insert too much politics into a job that should be free of political strings.
Two of the original appointees, Judges William Muecke Barker and George H. Brown, are listed as members of the TFIC board of directors. A third, Robert L. Echols, works for a firm with close ties to the organization.
Haslam built the Special Supreme Court after justices of the state’s highest court recused themselves from hearing the case, saying their impartiality could reasonably questioned because they, too, are sitting judges.
The case is now at a standstill. Hooker has until late September to challenge the appellate court’s ruling that found Tennessee’s yes-no retention election practice constitutional. That move would send the case to the Special Supreme Court.