Senate drops plan to elect Supreme Court justices

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

Senate drops plan to elect Supreme Court justices

Erik Schelzig, Associated Press,
May 12, 2009

NASHVILLE – The Senate Judiciary Committee has agreed to drop a plan to allow candidates to contest Tennessee Supreme Court elections from a larger proposal to change the way Tennessee fills appeals court vacancies.

Under the bill sponsored by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, a judicial nominating commission would continue to present panels of three finalists for the governor to choose from.

But a new provision would allow the governor to reject two slates of finalists and then select any candidate from the original pool of applicants.

The Judiciary Committee today approved Norris’ amendment, but delayed a vote on the final version of the bill until Wednesday so it can consider further proposed changes.

The new commission would expire in 2013 if not renewed by the Legislature before then, which raised concerns among some lawmakers that a renewed push for open elections could be made before current Supreme Court justices’ terms expire in 2014.

But Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said he was pleased that lawmakers are now deliberating over the shape of a merit selection process rather than whether the system will continue to exist.

“At least we’re moving the ball,” Kyle said.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said he backed off of the elections proposal because it had become a sticking point in negotiations with supporters of the current system.

“Obviously it’s not where I wanted to be at the very end to tell you the truth,” the Blountville Republican said. “At the same time, I’ve been down here for 17 years, and know that to pass something it takes 50 votes in the House and 17 in the Senate.”

If lawmakers do nothing, the Tennessee plan for judicial selection will expire at the end of next month.

“I don’t think just sunsetting the Judicial Selection Commission is a viable option,” Ramsey said. “That would cause chaos.”

Under the current system, members of the 17-member commission are appointed by the House and Senate speakers, but legal groups such as the state bar association, defense lawyers, prosecutors and trial lawyers have designated representatives.

The measure supported by Ramsey would give the House and Senate speakers sole discretion over who serves on a judicial nominating commission, and would replace the yes-no wording on retention ballots with “retain” or “replace.” Justices who lose their retention votes would be replaced through elections.

Ramsey is among a bloc of Republicans who argue that retention votes for justices are unconstitutional. Ramsey has called previous state Supreme Court decisions upholding the retention elections the results of “activist courts.”

Democratic Rep. Henry Fincher said he was pleased that Ramsey is abandoning elections of justices, which the Cookeville attorney has likened to “putting our judiciary up for sale to the highest bidder.”

“I’m glad he saw the light,” said Fincher. “I look forward to working with him to keep judicial selection fair and impartial.”

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

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