Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell announced a joint proposal Wednesday to address how judges are chosen in Tennessee.
According to a press release issued by the governor’s office, the three outlined a plan that includes a resolution to amend the Tennessee Constitution that would apply to all Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges saying they would be nominated by a commission based on merit; appointed by the governor; and be elected in a retention election as is the current practice.
Bell, R-Riceville, said he prefers the federal model of judicial selection that he believes has served the country well.
“It’s given us a relatively stable (U.S.) Supreme Court. At times it has been a little more liberal than I would have liked, but it has given us a relatively stable Supreme Court and I think Tennessee should model its method to choose judges after the federal system,” he said.
Article 6, Section 3 of the Tennessee Constitution states “... judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state” for eight years.
“That’s what the constitution says and that was practiced from 1874 until 1971, when the state created this new plan,” Bell said.
According to the press release, 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.”
Bell, who sits on the Senate Judicial Committee, said any potential legislation would have to pass through the committee system and floors of both houses by a simple majority this year and by two-thirds majority after the next General Assembly convenes in 2013. Then it will be voted on by the public in 2014.
“I think it is yet to be seen if this bill will make it through the committee system,” Bell said. “It will be an interesting discussion and it will be one that will probably be taking place in the next few weeks.”
Ramsey said the importance of a highly functioning and independent judicial branch is crucial to the small, efficient government promoted by a unified Republican majority.
“Our current method of choosing judges is a very good system, but it is not constitutional,” Ramsey said. “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.”
Harwell said she is proud to offer a solution on the issue of judicial elections.
“I am confident that what we are proposing today will maintain the integrity of the judicial system while respecting the state’s constitution,” she said. “I want to thank my colleagues for their tireless work and dedication regarding the issue of judicial selection in Tennessee.”
Bell said there is another bill that will also be introduced and even though the governor, lieutenant governor and speaker are behind this plan, he is unsure which of the two plans will emerge from the General Assembly.
“I can tell you there are a number of representatives and senators who do not agree with the speakers and the governor on this issue,” he said.
Bell said in July 2011 he opposed the current process because it is not in accordance with the Tennessee Constitution.
In 1971, the Tennessee General Assembly changed the selection process from popular vote to a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission.
“Either the words in our constitution mean what they say or they don’t. If they don’t, then nothing is sacred. That’s why I’m passionate about what I think is a disservice the State Legislature did to the state of Tennessee in 1971,” Bell said.
Under the current system, the Judicial Nominating Commission reviews applicants for judicial vacancies on the state trial and appellate courts. The commission then makes recommendations to the governor who makes an appointment to fill the vacancy.
Eight of the 17 members of the commission are appointed by the speaker of the Senate. Eight of the members are appointed by the speaker of the House. One member is jointly appointed by the speakers of the Senate and House.