A Senate committee Tuesday took what Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called “a baby step” toward resolving a long-running dispute over whether the state’s top judges should be subject to popular election rather than “retention elections” as is the case now.
Hours after a meeting between Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark and Ramsey, a Senate committee approved, 5-4, a Ramsey-backed proposal (SJR183) to amend the state constitution to allow an retention election system, wherein voters simply vote yes or no on whether a judge should have a new term.
Ramsey and others contend the state constitution, as now written, requires popular election of Supreme Court and appeals court judges, even though a panel of specially-appointed judges ruled years ago that it does not in declaring the current system valid. Ramsey says he would support the current system in principle, but not with the current language of the constitution in place.
Separate legislation (SB127), which has cleared committees of both the House and Senate, calls for ending the present system and having the top judges elected by popular vote.
“The Supreme Court has not negotiated with Lt. Gov. Ramsey and did not agree with the language (incorporated into) the resolution passed here today,” said Libby Sykes, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts in response to a reporter’s question afterwards.
Ramsey agreed that the discussion should not be characterized as “negotiation,” but as a matter of Supreme Court members “expressing their concerns.”
The resolution, as adopted in committee, declares that the General Assembly shall have authority to enact a judicial selection system of “merit-based appointments with or without retention elections” – a phrase that describes the current system.
Sykes said the justices would prefer language less “permissive” that would restrict legislatures of the future to adopting a plan including merit-based appointment and retention elections.
The committee vote was bipartisan. The resolution was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who said he was acting at Ramsey’s request. He was asked at one point whether the resolution was a result of discussions between Ramsey and Supreme Court members and replied, “Apparently so.”
Ramsey said he and the court members “are on the same page” in the concept of amending the constitution and predicted they would eventually agree on language – even though they disagree on interpretation of the present constitution’s language.