Senate Joint Resolution 183, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, and Senate Joint Resolution 710, sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, were approved by the Senate Finance Committee last Tuesday and moved to the full Senate for the first and second readings on Wednesday and Thursday. A final vote on the matter was scheduled for Monday.
The action follows an announcement made earlier this year by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, that legislative action is needed under the present system for selecting appellate judges in order to be constitutionally correct.
Article VI, Section 3 of Tennessee’s Constitution requires that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state,” which concerns many lawmakers who believe the current system does not fully satisfy that mandate. Under the state’s current Tennessee plan for selecting Supreme Court and other appellate judges, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission reviews applicants and sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration. The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel and request a second panel. After being appointed through this process, the appellate judges must stand for approval by the voters after completion of their term, with the people deciding whether to “retain” or “replace” them.
Senate Joint Resolution 183 provides that as an alternative to contested elections, the Legislature is authorized to establish in the law a system of merit-based appointments with retention elections for judges of the Supreme Court and the intermediate appellate courts. The changes set out in the resolution would only go into effect if the Constitution is amended by a vote of the people.
First, the resolution must be approved by a simple majority of the Legislature this year after three readings and must receive a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the following General Assembly. Then it would go to a vote of the people in 2014.
As secretary of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am very pleased to finally see both of these resolutions advancing. They will give the people an opportunity to have a say in this matter.
The other proposal, Senate Joint Resolution 710, calls for appointment of state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model by allowing Tennessee’s governor to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly, for eight-year terms.
Of the bill, Sen. Kelsey says, “This plan follows the tried and true plan designed by our nation’s Founding Fathers. Judges are appointed by the executive and confirmed by the Legislature. The resolution even improves upon the federal model by correcting for its one flaw: inaction by the Legislature. The plan puts a 60-day clock on the Legislature to act or the nominee will be confirmed by default.”
Ramsey adds, “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. 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.”
(Editor’s Note: The second part of state Sen. Mike Bell’s legislative summary will be published in the Thursday, April 19, edition of the Cleveland Daily Banner.)