Norris plan latest in judicial selection issue

On May 12, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

Limits election to judges not retained from ballot

By Richard Locker, Memphis Commercial Appeal
May 12, 2009

NASHVILLE — Another week, another plan for selecting Tennessee’s top judges.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville on Tuesday unveiled the GOP’s latest plan for restructuring the selection of judges on the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Under this version, an open, contested election for a judgeship would occur only when a judge loses a retention election.

Norris’ proposal is scheduled to be voted on this afternoon in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It immediately drew the ire of conservatives outside the legislature who say the state Constitutional requires open elections for the Tennessee Supreme Court instead of the 15-year-old system in which a commission submits nominees to the governor, who selects an appointee. The appointee later faces voters in “yes” or “no” retention elections without an opponent on the ballot.

Judicial selection is an issue in the state legislature because key elements of the current system expire June 30 unless lawmakers renew it or replace it with something new. The legislature plans to adjourn in about a month.

Norris’ plan would replace the current 17-member Judicial Selection Commission, which is composed mostly of lawyers representing various associations, and replace it with a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission, including 12 lawyers, all to be appointed by the two legislative speakers. Commission members would serve six-year terms, with no reappointment unless they were originally appointed to fill a vacancy for two years or less.

But the key element retains initial appointment of Supreme Court justices by the governor rather than open elections. Applicants for the Supreme Court would file public applications with the nominating commission, which would be posted on the Internet, and the commission would submit three candidates to the governor.

The governor could reject those candidates and ask for three more nominees. If he chose, he could reject the second slate and select an appointee from among the applicants the commission reviewed but did not nominate — a major departure from the current system and a powerful tool for a governor.

Whomever the governor appoints to the court would appear on the next statewide ballot in August of even-numbered years for retention — but instead of the current “yes” or “no” wording on the ballot, voters would choose between “replace” or “retain.”

Only when a justice is turned off the bench by voters would a contested election for that seat occur — two years later. The governor would name an interim justice to serve during the two years.

The plan is the third judicial selection proposal advanced in the state Senate in the last month.

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