Judge Jerry Smith bows out of retention election battle

An appeals court judge who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a drunken driving charge has announced he won’t run for re-election next year, reports The Tennessean.

Judge Jerry L. Smith, a member of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, has told the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that he will not seek another term in August, reversing an earlier request to be reviewed by the panel.

The decision means the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, a nine-person group that weighs the job performance of appeals court judges, will drop plans to recommend against Smith’s re-election next year, a rare move that could have cost Smith his seat on the court.

Smith informed the commission of his decision Nov. 27, and Chairman Robert L. Jones, a circuit judge based in Columbia, announced it Friday at a meeting in Nashville. Two other members of the bench — Appeals Court Judge Andy Bennett and Criminal Appeals Court Judge Camille R. McMullen — remain on track to receive negative reviews but so far have pressed ahead with their bids to remain in office.

The recommendations set the table for judicial elections next summer. With Tennesseans also scheduled to vote on a constitutional amendment on how appeals court judges are chosen, those elections — and questions about judges’ job performance — have come under scrutiny.

…Of the three, Smith appeared to be the most likely to step aside rather than accept a negative report. The Nashville jurist, who has been on the court since 1995, was arrested in April 2012 in Knoxville and pleaded guilty that June to a charge of driving under the influence.

Bennett, who also is based in Nashville, has been on the court since 2007. McMullen, of Memphis, was appointed in 2008, becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the Criminal Appeals Court.

…McMullen attended Friday’s meeting, but the commission did not offer her an opportunity to speak. Instead, the commission said judges could file written responses to its reports and appear at a Jan. 17 meeting where they would be allowed to speak about their job performance. The commission’s recommendations will not be finalized until the spring.

…The commission also refused to hear from opponents of the retention election system, including John Jay Hooker. The Nashville attorney said afterward that he may sue the commission for not letting him speak.

“When you cut off the right of the citizen to be heard, you’ve done self-government and democracy a great injustice,” Hooker said.

Commissioners, however, said the debate over how judges are picked lies beyond their jurisdiction.

“I think the (Tennessee) constitution does seem to imply that they need to stand for a regular election,” said Christopher Clem, a Chattanooga attorney who took part in the meeting by videoconference. “I just don’t necessarily think this is the appropriate forum for that.”