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Legislative Confirmation for Judges Advances

by Andrea Zelinski on March 28, 2012

There’s little consensus on Capitol Hill over how the state should pick its highest ranking state judges, and the plot just got a little thicker.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a plan Tuesday to change the state’s guiding document to reflect the federal practice for choosing judges, despite calls from top Republicans leaders to reinforce the state’s current practice of appointment by the governor.

Under SJR475, the governor would nominate judges for the Supreme and other appellate courts, and the Senate and House would confirm them.

The governor currently chooses those judges, who are subject to yes-no retention elections by voters every eight years, a process dubbed the “Tennessee Plan.”

Debate boils down to a long-running disagreement over whether the state currently follows the state’s Constitution.

“In my view, the Constitution says that the judges will be elected by the people, and that’s not what we’re doing so we’re actually in violation of the Constitution right now, in my opinion,” said Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also says, “The judges of the Circuit and Chancery Courts, and of other inferior Courts, shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”

The Supreme Court has upheld that the Tennessee Plan is constitutional, but others say the Constitution calls for popular elections like the ones legislators face.

Gov. Bill Haslam, along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell, declared early this year they want to edit the Constitution to legitimize the plan and eliminate debate once and for all about whether it satisfies the intent of the state’s founding fathers.

Lawmakers have yet to take up any other judicial selection proposals this year, although Republican lawmakers may be running short on time given they want to adjourn in April.

“The Senate is more fixated on these judicial issues than the House is,” said House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, who said he’d prefer judges not face any sort of election.

“The Constitution clearly says we’re supposed to have elected judges, and I don’t think that’s necessarily good for the state,” he added. “However, the Constitution says it. So we’ve got to either have to change the Constitution or do what the Constitution says. And I think we ought to change the Constitution.”

The Senate measure advanced from committee 5-2 with two senators abstaining. It now moves to the Senate Finance Committee, but it has a long way to go. Any measure changing the Constitution would need approval from both chambers this year, then again before going before the voters in 2014.

“I just want to say as a point of fact that I don’t intend to vote for any more tinkering with the Constitution of the state of Tennessee,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, who voted against the bill. “Laws can be changed. When you screw the Constitution, that’s long and involved.”

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