Judicial selection compromise advances

On May 14, 2009, in News 2009, by Mark Norris

Voters may see ballot changes on judges

By Colby Sledge • THE TENNESSEAN
May 14, 2009

A compromise bill to resolve a yearlong debate over how Tennessee’s highest judges are chosen passed Wednesday in a Senate committee.

Under the bill, voters would decide whether to “replace” or “retain” state appellate and Supreme Court judges, instead of voting yes or no on their retention.

If voters decided to replace a judge, the governor would appoint an interim judge until the next election, when a contested election would occur.

Currently only trial judges are subject to contested elections in Tennessee.

For vacancies not created by voters, a 17-member commission would recommend two panels of three nominees each to the governor, who could reject both panels and select another person vetted by the commission.

Time to act grows short

The bill would keep the current number of commissioners, 17, but would change their composition and ban lobbyists and their employers from serving.

A group of Republicans, led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, argue the current system of choosing state justices is unconstitutional. Lawmakers have battled over how to replace the current judicial selection commission, which is set to expire at the end of June.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, sponsored the bill, and said the measure could serve as a bridge to a potential constitutional convention next year.

“At the risk of confusing the issue, I decided I would simply speak to it and say that I believe this is the proper way to give citizens the opportunity to address this in the constitution,” Norris said of the convention.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday 5-3, with five Republicans voting for the bill. Committee chairman Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, joined Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle and Sen. Beverly Marrero, both Memphis Democrats, in voting against the bill.

“We have pieced together something just to make it happen, and it’s not in our best interests to do so,” Kyle said. “We did our best to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

The bill next goes to the Senate Government Operations Committee. The House companion bill is scheduled for the House Finance Committee May 20.

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