TN justices could be face electoral challenges

On April 29, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

Erik Schelzig, Associated Press, KnoxNews.com
April 29, 2009

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Supreme Court justices could be challenged in re-election campaigns under a Republican-sponsored proposal advanced by a Senate panel on Wednesday.

The proposal sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican, would give the governor the power to independently fill all vacancies on the high court, and justices could face challengers at the end of their terms.

Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville broke a 4-4 tie along party lines in the Senate Government Operations Committee to advance the measure.

Currently governors must choose from three-candidate panels presented by the Judicial Selection Commission, and justices stand for yes-no retention votes at the end of their terms. The system known as the Tennessee Plan is set to expire on June 30.

Ramsey said he plans to push for a referendum to allow voters to decide whether to amend the constitution to restore the current system of retention elections for Supreme Court justices. But he argues the existing plan violates the state constitution.

“I just know that in 1870 when we adopted our constitution, and it says Supreme Court justices ’shall be elected by qualified votes in the state,’ retention ballots were not on their mind,” Ramsey told reporters after the vote.

The earliest voters could decide on a constitutional amendment would be in November 2014. But justices would have to stand for re-election in August of that year.

“I don’t like that, but I don’t know how you get from here to there without that,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey acknowledged that his plan faces a tough path in the closely divided House, where even Republican Speaker Kent Williams of Elizabethton has expressed reservations.

Democratic Rep. Henry Fincher of Cookeville has been an outspoken critic of changing the current system that he argues ensures an independent and merit-based judiciary.

“Putting them up for contested races, where big money can buy TV ads produced by slick professionals run statewide is just putting our judiciary up for sale,” said Fincher. “It’s a bad idea.”

State Attorney General Bob Cooper has told lawmakers that if the current system is simply allowed to expire, there will be no way for appellate vacancies to be filled.

“The opinion is that the Legislature has to do something to fill in that gap, otherwise there will be no mechanism,” Cooper said.

Ramsey said he worries that “chaos” would ensue if the two chambers of the General Assembly can’t come to an agreement. Fincher said judicial vacancies are more of an inconvenience than chaos.

“And I prefer inconvenience to putting our judiciary up for sale to the highest bidder,” he said.

The companion bill was scheduled for a hearing in the House Government Operations Committee later on Wednesday.

More details as they develop online and in Thursday’s News Sentinel.

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