(Note: Expands and replaces original post.)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Add the election of Supreme Court justices and appellate judges to the list of disagreements between the top two Republicans at the Tennessee Statehouse.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville on Tuesday night broke a 4-4 committee deadlock to advance a bill to require state Supreme Court justices and appeals judges to stand for popular election — a move that fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has opposed.
During last year’s gubernatorial campaign, Haslam spoke out in favor of keeping the current system in which the governor appoints justices and appeals judges, who later stand in yes-no retention elections.
Critics point to language in the state constitution requiring all judges to be “elected by the qualified voters of the state,” and argue that the Supreme Court has had a conflict of interest in upholding the Tennessee system.
The governor’s spokesman did not immediately return messages seeking comment on Wednesday, but Haslam said at a gubernatorial forum hosted by the Tennessee Bar Association in June that justices shouldn’t have to conduct statewide political campaigns. He also said he defers to the rulings on the legality the current system.
“The highest court in the state has ruled on multiple occasions that this does meet the definition of elections,” he said.
Despite professing a strong working relationship, Haslam and Ramsey have disagreed on several key areas during this legislative session, including the extent of teachers’ collective bargaining rights and whether the executive branch should have control over medications used to make methamphetamine.
Ramsey, who came in a distant third in the GOP gubernatorial primary last year, has urged supporters on his Facebook page to “stand with me in this cause to make sure we as Republicans are who we say we are.”
Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, have endorsed revisions to a bill that would curb teachers’ collective bargaining rights, but not go as far as the Senate version that would do away with union negotiations altogether.
Harwell exercised her right as speaker to cast a tiebreaking vote in the House Budget Subcommittee on Wednesday to keep the collective bargaining bill from failing.
Harwell said after the hearing that she understands arguments on both sides of the judicial selection debate, but wants to keep the judiciary “above the political fray.”
“We don’t want to get into a situation where we have money pouring into these judicial races and tainting a system that has worked pretty well for us,” she said.
Ramsey in a press conference last week said disagreements among top Republicans are exaggerated by the media.
“We’re not always going to be on the same page, and I know there are some in the press that will do everything they can to drive a wedge between the governor and me, and Beth and me,” he said. “And that’s not going to happen.
“We’re on the same page on just about everything,” he said.
But Ramsey has also rejected the governor’s proposal to allow his administration to decide whether to require prescriptions for cold medicines used to make meth.
“I don’t think we ought to pass any bill that gives our powers over to the executive branch,” Ramsey said.
Note: Campfield has video up on his blog… and Ramsey issued a news release on his vote, provided below.
From the lieutenant governor’s office:
(Nashville) — Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey cast the tie-breaking vote to advance a bill requiring the election of all judges in the State of Tennessee, including appellate and Supreme Court justices. The 4 to 4 tie occurred in Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee meeting on Senate Bill 127. Lt. Governor Ramsey broke the tie by voting in favor of the bill.
Ramsey took the step because he believes state constitution is unambiguous in its proscription that judges “shall be elected” in the state of Tennessee.
“It is clear that we need judicial reform in Tennessee,” said Ramsey. “I don’t necessarily think that electing judges is best for the state in the long term but the constitution is the constitution and the constitution clearly states that judges shall be elected.”
The state currently operates under the “Tennessee Plan” which allows the governor to appoint judges from a select list of candidates from a nominating commission. Judges then stand for what is called a “retention election” where votes make a yes or no decision on whether a judge keeps their job. While the constitutionality of the plan has been affirmed by the Supreme Court, many legal scholars dispute the ruling.
“My hope is that my actions today will spur those who recognize the need for reform to craft a constitutional judicial solution in an expeditious manner,” Ramsey continued. “Either we change the constitution or we change the Tennessee Plan. Sooner or later, this has to be addressed. I prefer sooner.”
The last time Lt. Gov. Ramsey entered a committee to break a tie was in 2009. Senate Bill 127 moves next to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee.