By Joe White,
April 16, 2012

Last night, the Tennessee Senate approved a proposal for naming state judges – a first step in making a change to the state constitution. And it was the one that most resembles the current system.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris says his resolution would give lawmakers leeway to set up a system much like today’s method – the governor appoints judges, they later stand for retention in an unopposed, yes-no vote by citizens.
Governor Bill Haslam said it is his desire to pass a constitutional amendment to write the current method called the “Tennessee plan” into the constitution.

Last night’s 21 to 9 vote was not the final word on judges by the upper chamber. A competing plan will be up for a vote in the Senate later this week.

Senator Norris says he welcomes the competing plan. He argues that more than one proposal for naming judges may be in order, because a resolution must pass the next General Assembly by a two-thirds majority before it can be on the ballot in 2014.
 Senator Norris’ resolution now goes to the House, where it must pass three readings in order to be referred to the next General Assembly for that body’s approval The Senate vote puts Norris’ version three days ahead of the competition, a resolution by fellow Republican Brian Kelsey.
Kelsey put an amendment on his resolution. That change put it back to square one. The amended proposal must go through two more “readings” in the Senate.
Norris said lawmakers to field more than one proposal. 

“We’re going to have, in the next session regardless of political stripe, perhaps several dozen new members. Here in the Senate and across the way in the House, there are going to be a whole lot of folks elected whom we do not know And we don’t know what their preference or those who elect them may be.”

Such constitutional amendment proposals must pass by simple majority in one General Assembly, then by a two-thirds vote next year – before going before the voters in 2014.

The most common Democratic argument against the resolutions is that the current Tennessee plan doesn’t need to be retro-fitted into the state constitution.

 Senator Andy Berke, a Chattanooga Democrat: 

“This is doing something that we can already do. And I know that we just have an honest difference of opinion on this, but in fact I believe that the current constitution authorizes us to have the Tennessee plan, and the Supreme Court has previously agreed with us…”

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis said that as late as that day he thought he would probably vote for the two Senate Joint Resolutions that would create two – different – ways of naming judges. 

“But as I have sat here, I thought that would be just absolutely….  I thought about it, that would be dishonest. It would give a public opinion and viewpoint that I was supporting these resolutions, and I don’t support these resolutions.”

The measure, SJR 183 Norris, on merit based judge selection is now the furthest along. It only needs three legislative days in the House to stay on track for the November 2014 ballot.
SJR 710 Kelsey sets a federal style appointment system with the governor nominating judges and the legislature confirming.

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