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VOL. 123 | NO. 151 | Monday, August 4, 2008

Bredesen Reaffirms Commitment To Tennessee Plan

By Bill Dries

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Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen wants the Tennessee Plan for selecting appeals court judges to remain in place.

Bredesen commented last week during a trip to Memphis that included the ceremonial swearing in of new Tennessee Criminal Appeals Court Judge Camille McMullen of Memphis.

“I’m fully committed to … the preservation of the Tennessee Plan as a way of selecting judges,” Bredesen told The Daily News.

He said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh are also in favor of keeping the plan.

McMullen was one of three finalists whose names were forwarded by the Judicial Selection Commission to Bredesen for appointment. She also is one of seven state appeals court judges on the Aug. 7 ballot in judicial yes-no retention races.

Renewal debate

Bredesen and the commission wound up in court in 2007 over the commission’s decision to resubmit several names he had rejected in an earlier round of finalists for a vacancy on the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The Tennessee Legislature before adjourning earlier this year did not renew the legislation that since 1994 has established not only the selection procedure for appointments but also the yes-no form the popular vote takes for the positions.

Bredesen said it was the result of the Legislature being behind in its work. On the final day of the 2007 session, former Lt. Gov. John Wilder tried to move the renewal out of a state Senate committee directly to the floor. The attempt failed and was the final effort in Wilder’s political career of more than 30 years.

The lack of a renewal means the commission and the appointment process for the next year are in what legislators refer to as a “wind-down” phase. If there is no renewal during the 2009 legislative session, Tennessee would revert back to a process of attorneys running in multi-candidate races for the appeals court positions.

The appointment of McMullen, who is the first African-American woman to serve as an appeals court judge, comes during the wind-down phase.

Surfacing in Memphis

The controversy surfaced twice during last week’s City Hall ceremony for McMullen, who officially began her judicial duties in June.

Among the speakers at the ceremony was now-retired state Criminal Appeals Court Judge Joe Riley, for whom McMullen clerked.

Riley joked that he offered to speak in her behalf before the Judicial Selection Commission. He also pointed out that the last person he offered to speak for was Covington attorney Houston Gordon. Gordon was one of the attorneys whom Bredesen specifically rejected for a Tennessee Supreme Court position.

“You remember that, don’t you, governor?” Riley said as Bredesen sat behind him. “He is laughing, isn’t he?”

Bredesen also heard from the other finalist whose name was at the center of the controversy, Memphis attorney Buck Lewis, who is now president of the Tennessee Bar Association.

Lewis said as he voted early last week in advance of Thursday’s election, he hoped it would not be the last judicial retention slate on which he voted.

“The other thing that I thought was that if you care about diversity and quality on our state’s appellate courts, you ought to care about us retaining the Tennessee Plan,” Lewis said.

On that point, Bredesen said he and Lewis agree.

“I think the Tennessee Plan ought to be preserved,” Bredesen said after the ceremony. “I had some thoughts about how to take some of the politics out of it. The most important one in my mind is just opening the thing up. I think when you are selecting someone as important as a judge, someone who just by the nature of the job is as removed from public pressures and those kinds of things, I think it ought to be a completely open process. If there’s something in the background of some judge that’s a little bit embarrassing, that’s the time to get it out and talk about it.”

Bredesen said there might be some attempt to make changes in the appointment process but not if it endangers the entire plan.

“The preservation of the Tennessee Plan is the vastly more important thing to me than any messing around or fooling around with the mechanics of the selection,” he said. “I’d like to see it opened up. I’d like to see something like some additional selections … but preservation of the Tennessee Plan is a must-do for the state.”

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