By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The sponsor of a proposal to strip state courts of the power to block laws enacted by the Tennessee General Assembly quietly withdrew the bill on Monday after receiving heavy criticism from both sides of the political aisle.
Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, announced without any specific explanation she was abandoning four bills including the judicial oversight measure.
“Or speaker pro tem has been telling us we need to withdraw bills or we need to dispose of them in some way,” she in brief remarks on the Senate floor. “So I’m going to do everything I can to honor that request.”
Beavers last week told The Associated Press that the bill was aimed at reeling in what she called out-of-control courts.
“As we’ve come down through the years, they’ve used case law to rule on things and we’ve gotten farther and farther from the constitution,” she said. “The courts have taken on a whole new supremacy, where they’re making the policy instead of the legislative bodies making the policy.”
That approach was disputed by several Senate colleagues, including by Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who said that even though he often disagrees with judicial decision, Beavers’ proposal would go too far.
“That is crossing the line on separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches,” he said. “Because we make the law and they interpret the law. If you don’t like what they’re coming down with, then you do everything you can to change the court.”
Democratic Sen. Roy Herron, a Dresden attorney, said judicial oversight is a fundamental part of the way state government works.
“Democracy is threatened by those who would take away the independence of the judiciary,” he said. “We ought to look very carefully before the politicians begin to take away the independence of the judiciary in Tennessee.”
Fellow Democratic Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga attorney, said it’s unlikely Beavers’ bill would have survived a legal challenge.
“We in government shouldn’t be part of a power grab,” he said. “Any time you try to grab another branch’s powers, the court is likely going to invalidate that.”
The judicial oversight measure was one of several Republican measures introduced in the GOP-controlled Legislature this session taking takes affecting the courts, including efforts to change the way judges are disciplined and taking the first step toward approving a constitutional amendment to resolve legal questions about the way appeals judges are appointed and retained.
Ramsey said he is joined by Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell in opposing the popular election of Supreme Court justices.
“I’m not in favor of statewide election of judges — I’ve been very plain with that,” Ramsey said. “Yet at the same time I think when the words are plainly in our constitution that judges shall be elected by the qualified voters of our state, that we need to amend the constitution and take that out.”
Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he sees the changes as unnecessary because the state Supreme Court has upheld the current system under which the governor appoints appeals judges and they stand for yes-no retention votes after that.
“But if the General Assembly decides a constitutional amendment is necessary, we’ll support that, too,” he said.
Both chambers would have to approve the proposed constitutional amendment this session in order to keep it on track for going before the voters in 2014. Otherwise, the earliest such a measure could go on the ballot would be in 2018.
Ramsey has said he also expects to make progress this year on efforts to make the attorney general a popularly elected position, rather than one that’s appointed by the state Supreme Court.
Ramsey also said fellow Republicans this year said he also expects lawmakers will replace a commission that disciplines Tennessee judges to promote greater transparency. Fellow Republican Sen. Mike Faulk last week filed a bill to replace the Court of the Judiciary with a 16-person Board of Judicial Conduct.
The new panel would have to make quarterly reports to the Legislature on complaints and disciplinary action against judges.
Shelby County Criminal Judge Chris Craft, the judiciary court’s presiding judge, acknowledged in legislative hearings last year that panel could have been more transparent in the past, and that officials were working on ways to be open about the types of cases it handles and the kinds of cases that have to be dismissed.
According to the panel’s annual report released in August, of the 334 cases disposed of last year, 314, or 94 percent, were dismissed.
Lawyers welcome the proposals in Faulk’s bill, Ramsaur said.
“We think a strong and independent body to handle judicial discipline is important,” he said.