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VOL. 127 | NO. 17 | Thursday, January 26, 2012

Haslam, Speakers Want to Keep Judge Appointments


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NASHVILLE (AP) – The state's top Republicans want to place a ballot measure before Tennessee voters to eliminate any constitutional questions about the current system for appointing judges.

Gov. Bill Haslam, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell announced Wednesday that they will introduce legislation and a proposed constitutional amendment designed to avoid the popular election of Supreme Court and appeals judges.

"The uncertainly surrounding the process, the differences on what the constitution means and the effect this has on the judicial branch are all results that no one wants," Haslam said at a press conference at the Capitol. "This is the best way to handle it."

The proposal would formalize the current system, where a commission nominates judges, the governor appoints them and voters cast ballots on whether to keep them on the bench.

While the plan for electing judges has withstood legal challenges, the system has been criticized by those who say it conflicts with language in the state constitution that says Supreme Court justices "shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state."

Ramsey acknowledged that members of his own party are the most vocal about wanting to hold statewide elections for justices.

"There are some in our political party that feel like we ought to be electing everything, so to speak," said Ramsey, of Blountville. "But ... someone having to spend multimillions of dollars to get elected statewide probably won't get to where we want to be."

Changing the Tennessee Constitution is a slow process and must be approved by successive General Assemblies before going before the voters in a gubernatorial election year.

Haslam said he expects to see campaign committees on both sides of the issue should it make it to ballot, but that he hopes the support of top Republicans will help gain its approval.

Ramsey said it may be a difficult task to persuade skeptics about the need for keeping the current system.

"Obviously, it is going to be a job that we're going to have to sell," he said. "I will be at the mountaintop screaming that this is what we need to be doing."

Wednesday's proposal also calls for separate legislation to keep the current system in place until 2015, meaning current justices and judges would run again in retention elections in August 2014 – three months before constitutional amendment could go before the voters.

Rep. Glen Casada, R-Franklin, said he we will nevertheless press ahead with a bill calling for the popular election of Supreme Court judges in 2014.

"The people of Tennessee want to elect the judges, and we should implement my bill and then see if the people want to change the constitution," Casada said. "I don't think they will."

Casada acknowledged that his proposal faces a tough road to passage given the position of the governor and the two speakers.

"But I contend that even if you don't agree with my legislation, you've got to adhere to the constitution – even if you don't like it," he said.

David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said his group supports a separate measure sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. That bill calls for legislative confirmation of the governor's appointments to the bench.

"Right now, there's really nobody that the public could effectively hold accountable for who is on the court," Fowler said. "It would at least allow the people say this is a great judge or this isn't a great judge, and make that an issue in the upcoming legislative elections."

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said while he supports the current plan, he doesn't agree with legal rulings that have found it is in compliance with the language of the state constitution.

"The wording is so clear in it that you can't convince me that the people who wrote that constitution didn't want to have elected judges," he said. "Why even have a constitution if we don't follow it?"

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he was surprised by Wednesday's announcement

"They pretty advocated the position the Democrats have been advocating for some time now," he said. "I'm a little curious. My hair on the back of my neck is raised a little bit trying to figure out what they're doing."

Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, said last week that attorneys see the changes as unnecessary because the state Supreme Court has upheld the current system.

"But if the General Assembly decides a constitutional amendment is necessary, we'll support that, too," he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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