June 10, 2009

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris and Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle continued today a dispute that could threaten passage of legislation revising the state’s system of selecting appeals court judges.

Some liken the situation to a game of “chicken,” with neither senator willing to back down. Or you might say that each is holding a bill hostage.

Kyle and Norris are both members of the Senate Late Bills Committee. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is the third member of the panel, which must unanimously approve any bill introduced after the normal filing deadline.

Norris filed SB2377 late. It calls for a state constitutional convention on judicial selection. The Republican leader has also been acting as lead sponsor of SB1573, the bill revising the selection process that has passed both the House and Senate.

But the House version differs from the Senate version. Norris has repeatedly postponed a Senate vote on whether or not to accept the House revision, saying the convention and the selection bill are “inextricably intertwined.”

Kyle, meanwhile, supports the selection bill but not the convention bill. At a morning meeting of the Late Bills Committee on Wednesday, Kyle contended that it’s too late in the session to try pushing a convention bill through the Legislature.

Better, Kyle says, to wait until next year when there can be more debate and public imput. If there’s a convention, he said, legislators should consider including other matters – popular election of the lieutenant governor and constitutional officers, for example – rather than limiting any constitutional changes to selection of judges.

“I feel that Sen. Kyle is holding things up,” said Norris. “I will not concur in the House amendment (to SB1573) as long as Sen. Kyle is stands in the way of people’s right to vote on this (holding a constitutional convention).”

The judicial selection bill is once again scheduled for a Senate floor vote on the House amendment Thursday. If the vote is never taken, the bill dies. And since the current Judicial Selection Commission will cease to exist on July 1, the whole process of filling judicial vacancies would be thrown into turmoil.

On the other hand, if the Senate rejects the House amendment, another round of back-and-forth between the House and Senate would ensue – again with final passage in jeopardy.

A vote to concur, of course, would mean final passage and the bill would go to the governor. Norris indicated he would go along with the House amendment – if Kyle stops holding his convention bill hostage.

“It looks like we have one Republican in the House who blocks us from having an Ethics Commission and I guess we now we have one Republican in the Senate who wants to block us from having a Judicial Nominating Commission,” said Kyle.

On the ethics front, Kyle said he was referring to Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mount Juliet, who has refused to schedule a vote on legislation extending the life of the Tennessee Ethics Commission, which is also scheduled to expire on July 1. Separate legislation would merge the commission with the Registry of Election Finance.

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