Haslam, Harwell & Ramsey Unite on Judicial Selection Plan

Gov. Bill Haslam, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey declared Wednesday they will jointly push an amendment to the Tennessee constitution to legitimize the state’s current system for selecting top judges.
“There have been so many discussions on this, I think there’s a need for finality and clarity,” said Haslam, who has previously been cool toward calling for a constitutional amendment on the topic. So has Harwell.
If approved by the Legislature, which would appear likely with Harwell and Ramsey as supporters, the proposed constitutional amendment would be placed before voters for final approval in 2014, the year Haslam will be up for reelection.
The joint plan calls for leaving the present system in place unchanged between now and 2015, when the constitutional amendment would presumably be in place.

For that to happen, the Legislature must also approve bills this year to renew the existence of the Judicial Nominating Commission and the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission – both scheduled to “sunset,” or cease to exist, on July 30 if renewal legislation is not approved. That situation had made 2012 a crucial year for the judge selection process.
The governor and the two speakers acknowledged that, assuming all the necessary legislation is passed, that there is a chance voters would reject the amendment, believing that appeals court judges should be subject to popular election contests.
“If they (voters) don’t (approve), we’re right back where we are now,” said Haslam.
Haslam, Harwell and Ramsey all said they are committed to campaigning for voter approval in 2014. Haslam said he anticipates that political campaign committees will be set up on both sides of the issue.
“I will be at the mountaintop screaming that’s what we need to be doing,” said Ramsey.
Ramsey has been among legislators who say the present gubernatorial appointment system — though he approves of the way it works — is unconstitutional under the state’s constitution as now written that judges of the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal be “elected by vote of the people.”
Harwell and Haslam have previously said they favor the current system, but have not backed a constitutional amendment.
Currently, vacancies on the Supreme Court and appellate courts are filled by gubernatorial appointment. The governor picks from a list of nominees submitted to him by the Judicial Nominating Commission.
The judges he appoints are then subject to a “retention election,” wherein voters simply vote yes or no on whether the judge should get a new term. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission reviews each judges’ work and issues a report on their performance prior to each retention election.
There has been considerable dispute over what would happen if both commissions were allowed to die by legislators this year. Some contend that the state’s top judges would then become subject to contested elections, as lower level judges are now. Others say the result would be that the governor could appoint whoever he wanted to the top courts without any need for choosing among commission nominees and without judges being subject to evaluation.
In general, the most vocal critics of the current system have been conservative Republicans. Democrats have generally supported it.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, who attended the Republicans’ news conference, said afterwards the plan raises questions for supporters of the present system such as himself.
“Is this a back door way to bring on popular election of judges? I’m not sure,” he said. “I’m going to have to look at it.”
The “back door” reference, he said, is to the possibility of voters rejecting the amendment in 2014, which could be seen as a vote for a return to contested elections of judges and increase political pressure to implement partisan contests and primaries. With various changes, the law authorizing an appointive system for judges has been in place since the 1970s in Tennessee.
Critics of popular election of judges, which some states now have, say such contests raise questions about the integrity of the judicial system as candidates raise money from special interests and attack one another in partisan warfare. Turner estimated that a statewide race for the Supreme Court could cost a candidate $5 million to $10 million.
Turner also questioned why Democrats were excluded from discussions on the plan.
“Why not bring Democratic leadership in to stand beside you to say this is bipartisan?” Turner said, adding that the failure to do so leaves him a bit leery of the move.
John Jay Hooker, a two-time Democratic nominee for governor who has crusaded against the present system of judicial selection, said “I think so” when asked if he approved of the plan. But Hooker said he has misgivings about leaving the present system in place unchanged until the referendum.
There are other twists in the scenario. Current appeals court judges will be up for a retention election in 2014. Those with a majority yes vote will get a new eight-year term and thus will be place even if the vote that same year goes against them.

Here’s the news release from the governor’s office:
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt.Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) and House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) today announced a joint proposal to address how judges are chosen in Tennessee.
The three stood together for the announcement during a press conference in the Executive Conference Room of the State Capitol where they outlined the plan that includes a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution that would apply to all Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges saying that they:
· Will be nominated by a commission based on merit;
· Will be appointed by the Governor; and
· Will be elected in a retention election as they are today.
Legislation will be filed to extend the Judicial Nominating Commission and the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission until at least 2015, which allows appropriate time for the constitutional amendment to be considered with the goal of avoiding any additional confusion.
“It is great to stand here today with Lt. Gov. Ramsey and Speaker Harwell to announce our proposal together,” Haslam said. “I believe the current process has worked well during my time in office, and I’ve been pleased with both the quality of candidates and the process for choosing them. The judiciary is the third and equal branch of government, and we are here to make this recommendation because we believe it is important for our Constitution to clearly reflect the reality of how we select judges in Tennessee.”
“The importance of a highly functioning and independent judicial branch is crucial to the small, efficient government our unified Republican majority continues to bring to Tennessee,” Ramsey said. “Our current method of choosing judges is a very good system, but it is not constitutional. This effort will ensure that we finally have a constitutional method of choosing judges. I am proud to stand with the governor and the speaker in favor of a judicial selection process that is fair, effective and constitutional.”
“I am proud to join today with Governor Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ramsey to offer this solution on the issue of judicial elections,” Harwell said. “I am confident that what we are proposing today will maintain the integrity of the judicial system while respecting the state’s constitution. I want to thank my colleagues for their tireless work and dedication regarding the issue of judicial selection in Tennessee.”

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