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VOL. 123 | NO. 75 | Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Breakdown of Bill Reflects Rift on Judicial Selection Process

AP

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NASHVILLE (AP) - The rejection of a bill that would have made meetings of the Tennessee Judicial Selection Commission public has exposed a rift over the panel's future.

The bill being carried on behalf of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen was struck down by a House subcommittee last week, with opponents saying that the board needs candor to properly interview judicial candidates.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, says he wants to consider changing the makeup of the 17-member panel to allow for more input from those outside of powerful legal interests.

He argues that having all members from legal interest groups, as required by law, favors the selection of more liberal judges.

Unless speakers in each chamber are given a greater role in picking members, Ramsey says he would be open to eliminating the commission entirely.

Ramsey said he supported the governor's proposal to hold all commission meetings in public.

Rep. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, and Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, sponsored a bill to end the commission, though they have not actively pushed it during the current session.

Bell said he hoped the commission's life span would expire, so the General Assembly can look at its constitutionality.

"It would force the Legislature to look at this issue seriously," he said.

Bell said he believes the system under the commission violates the state constitution because it does not allow for direct election of Supreme Court justices by the voters.

Unless the commission is renewed, it will expire on July 1. The panel was established under a four-year law, and granted a one-year extension last year.

The commission meets to interview candidates for judicial vacancies and narrows them down to three for the governor to choose from. Voters get the chance at the end of the judges' terms to decide whether to retain them. The system has been upheld by the courts.

"This retention vote violates not only the spirit but the letter of the law in the constitution," Bell said.

Rep. Kent Coleman, D-Murfreesboro, a lawyer and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says the current system should remain in place with some changes.

A bill to keep the commission, sponsored by Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, and Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, has yet to come up for discussion in either the House or Senate.

Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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