Chief Justice Makes Rounds with Legislators

by Mike Morrow on February 24, 2011

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark said this week she has met with leadership of the Tennessee General Assembly to discuss matters of the courts, but Clark said she is reluctant to share details of those conversations.

Clark has spoken publicly recently about her opposition in general to legislative efforts to make judges run in competitive elections, and to do away with the Tennessee Plan, which has judges face retention elections with a yes-or-no vote. Critics of the Tennessee Plan say they are not true elections. But supporters of the plan, including Clark, say the current system helps keep partisan politics out of the process.

The Tennessee Constitution calls for appellate judges to be elected, and the Tennessee Plan has been found to pass constitutional muster. Clark has likened the election of judges to allowing sports teams to support a slate of referees who will call their games.

Much of Clark’s communications have been about administrative issues of the courts as opposed to matters like electing judges, however.

One member of the Legislature has been critical of Clark publicly weighing in on the election issue. Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, has said that just as legislators should not inject themselves into cases before the court, members of the court should not lobby legislators.

Bell was scheduled for a one-on-one meeting with Clark, and Bell said this week Clark did visit him. But Bell said Clark said she understood how he felt about her position on the Tennessee Plan and they agreed not to bring up legislative issues. They focused instead, he said, on administrative matters.

Bell had told TNReport that he objected to Clark lobbying on legislation, and Clark acknowledged this week that she learned of Bell’s opinion through TNReport. Bell described their meeting as “a very cordial conversation” that lasted 20-30 minutes.

“We stayed away from any proposed legislation,” Bell said. “We talked about some things I had questions about. I brought up just about everything that was brought up in the conversation.”

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