Lawmakers reject popular elections of justices

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

By Lucas L. Johnson II and Erik Schelzig, Associated Press,
May 29, 2008

NASHVILLE — Both chambers of the General Assembly on Thursday rejected proposals to hold open elections to fill vacancies on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The elections proposals failed in floor debates over a bill to make changes to the Tennessee Plan for judicial selection and retention.

The bill ultimately passed by both chambers would remove influence from legal groups like the state bar association, defense lawyers, prosecutors and trial lawyers over whom the speakers appoint to a panel that presents judicial nominees to the governor.

The bill passed 27-5 in the Senate and 58-38 in the House.

“It’s much, much better than what we had, and does take special interests out of the judicial nominating commission,” said Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. “It’s a huge step in the right direction.”

The Senate would have to agree on a change made by the House before it could head for Gov. Phil Bredesen’s consideration.

Under the House version, the governor would have to choose from up to six nominees. In the Senate bill, the governor could reject those six candidates and instead choose anyone from an entire pool of applicants.

The measure would keep retention ballots in place, though it would substitute the current yes-no option with “replace” or “retain” judges.

Many Republicans consider the retention election system unconstitutional, and most of the debate over the proposal came from within the GOP majorities in both chambers.

“I’m disappointed in the Republicans because we have lied to the people who put us down here,” said Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. “We said we were going to be different.”

Supporters say the bill is a way to keep the judiciary system functioning while they propose constitutional changes.

Republican Sens. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge and Dewayne Bunch of Cleveland proposed amendments to have judges run in contested races, but neither measure received more than 12 votes in the 33-member chamber.

Rep. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, made a similar proposal in the House. The chamber voted 55-41 to reject the amendment.

McNally said his proposal “would return us back to a popular election by the people.”

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville accused sponsors of the elections amendments of “playing to the people at home” and called their efforts “disingenuous.”

Sen. Tim Burchett was offended by the remark.

“When somebody says we’re doing something to appease the press or somebody back home, I take offense to that,” the Knoxville Republican said. “I’m expressing what I feel is right.”

Republican Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville, who became emotional in debating the proposal, said he took “umbrage” at the suggestion that special interests control Supreme Court races.

The proposal keeps “cash out of the courtroom,” he said.

Norris said he is considering legislation calling for a constitutional convention in 2010. Delegates for the convention would be elected in August of that year, and the results of the convention would later be put before the voters.

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