Tennessee’s most powerful elected leaders want to amend the state Constitution to validate the current and, to some at least, controversial method of appointing high-level state judges.
But some majority-party legislators aren’t so sure that’s a good idea — or that it’ll fly with voters.
Flanked by House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Gov. Bill Haslam announced Wednesday he’ll press lawmakers to pass a resolution asking voters to approve language to the state Constitution enshrining Tennessee’s present selection practice for judges on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals.
“I believe the current process has worked well during my time in office, and I’ve been pleased with both the quality of candidates and the process for choosing them,” said Tennessee’s Republican governor. “The judiciary is the third and equal branch of government, and we are here to make this recommendation because we believe it is important for our Constitution to clearly reflect the reality of how we select judges in Tennessee.”
If the measure is approved this year — and again in the next legislative session by a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and the Senate — voters would see the constitutional-amendment question on the 2014 general election ballot.
Currently, judges are appointed by the governor, whose choices for the bench are limited to a slate of candidates provided by a selection commission. Those judges, who serve eight-year terms, are subject to yes/no “retention” elections as their first term expires.
But even though that system has been formally ruled constitutional, and is strongly supported among the state’s legal establishment, many lawmakers have trouble getting over the nagging feeling that it really doesn’t gel with the clear wording of the Tennessee Constitution, which states, “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.”
“Our current method of choosing judges is a very good system, but it is not constitutional,” Ramsey said Wednesday.
Speaker Harwell said she, too, supports the so-called “Tennessee Plan,” but has “serious concerns about the constitutionality of the plan at present.”
“I also respect the previous decisions of the courts, which have determined otherwise,” added Harwell, a Nashville Republican. “As the governor stated today, clarity is certainly needed.”
Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin and a leading proponent in the Legislature of voters choosing who sits on the Supreme Court and appellate courts, was among lawmakers to express reservations Wednesday about what Haslam and the two speakers are proposing.
Casada said it seems to him elementary and unambiguous that the Constitution requires competitive judicial elections, and not merely an up-or-down vote on a judge well after he or she has been deciding cases.
Casada said he’ll be pushing a direct-election bill for judges this session. He said he’s not opposed to the idea of Tennessee voters getting their say on the current plan in the 2014 election, as proposed by Haslam, Harwell and Ramsey, but believes the electorate ought first to get an opportunity to see what a statewide judicial election would look like.
“We need to go ahead and put it into the code that the judges are elected by the people in a contested election, like the Constitution currently says they should be,” said Casada, who chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee. If Tennesseans don’t like what they see after that, then they could adopt the plan proposed by Harwell, Ramsey and Haslam, he said.
Vance Dennis, a Republican who serves as secretary of the House Judiciary Committee, said he’s skeptical at this time that the proposal to amend the Constitution will win the two-thirds legislative majorities necessary to ever even get on the ballot.
Dennis, an attorney from Savannah, isn’t a supporter of direct judicial elections. But he said it is clear the system used now is constitutionally suspect in the minds of many.
“Legally, the current plan has been found to be constitutional by the Supreme Court. Lots of folks disagree with that; lots of folks believe that the way that was done was not entirely appropriate,” said Dennis. “It is the law of the land, so what we are doing is legal. But it really doesn’t meet my definition of what an election is.”
Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, another supporter of giving voters a greater direct voice in choosing judges, said he harbors “serious doubts” a majority of Tennesseans can be convinced the existing system is the best option available.
Nevertheless, Bell, who has also sponsored a direction-election bill, said he’s willing to stand down and let the governor and speakers pursue their chosen course.
Lt. Gov. Ramsey acknowledged during Wednesday’s press conference that there’s an apparent preference within the GOP “of electing everything, so to speak.” He said, however, that he, Harwell and the governor will embark upon a “sales process” to bring doubtful voters and politicians around.
“To have someone spend multimillion dollars to get elected statewide probably won’t get to where we want to be, anyway,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey said he wants to see “conservative judges who interpret the law and not make the law” assigned to the Supreme Court and appellate courts. So long as Tennessee has “a governor who appoints people who think that way,” the current system is best for achieving that aim, he said.
Asked to speculate on what would happen if voters ultimately reject the proposed constitutional amendment, Gov. Haslam said he “would still be of the opinion that doing it the way we do now is the best system.”