Tennessee’s judicial system is in the midst of a makeover. This week, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey announced the launch of the state’s first judicial redistricting process in nearly 30 years. It follows the state’s recent legislative redistricting process that occurred a little more than a year ago and was led by the General Assembly’s Republican majority.
The last judicial redistricting occurred in 1984. At the moment, Tennessee has 31 judicial districts, which determine the areas that judges, district attorneys and public defenders serve.
In a memo he released Monday, Feb. 11, Ramsey wrote that over the past 30 years many Tennessee counties have seen bursts of growth.
“Several (have evolved) from rural to suburban or even urban-like communities,” he wrote. “At the upcoming August 2014 general election, the voters within each judicial district will elect (for eight-year terms) their district attorneys general, public defender and state trial court judges.
“The current legislative session provides the best and most realistic (and probably the last) window of opportunity, prior to the August 2022 general election, to improve and promote judicial efficiency, effectiveness and access through judicial redistricting. Therefore, I am requesting the Senate Judiciary Committee to actively consider judicial redistricting.”
Judicial redistricting plans are due to the legislature’s office of legal services no later than March 1. Ramsey is encouraging all citizens and organizations that are interested to develop and propose “logical judicial redistricting plans.”
To be considered, plans submitted must use 2010 federal census data and redistrict the entire state. Plans must contain a total of 31 districts or less, districts must be comprised of whole counties, and other considerations include regional integrity, geographic boundaries and ease of inter-county travel.
“I am especially hopeful that the Trial Judges Association, the District Attorneys General Conference, the Public Defenders Conference, the Tennessee Bar Association and the Administrative Office of the Courts will individually or jointly submit a plan or plans,” Ramsey wrote.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Haslam in his State of the State address last month told legislators a bill would come before them this session to amend the state’s Constitution to modify Tennessee’s judicial selection system.
“The amendment will do three things,” Haslam said. “It will continue judicial appointments by the governor, and our process will still be based on merit. It will preserve retention elections, and it will give the legislature a process to confirm the appointments.
“I believe this provides clarity for those who have concerns about our current process,” he said. “I also believe that it makes sense to preserve the current process until the people have a chance to vote in 2014. Making changes in the meantime does nothing but confuse the situation further.”
Even though the state’s current method has been held constitutional by courts that have looked at it, Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey told The Daily News that he sides with those who point to Article VI of the state Constitution as being “clear and requires elections” by voters.
That section of the Constitution states that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state” and that appellate court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of their district.”
Kelsey has been the driving force behind a move toward the compromise reflected in Haslam’s comments last month.
Attorneys like former Memphis Bar Association president Gary Smith still have concerns, though.
Speaking as an individual attorney and not as a representative of the Bar, Smith told The Daily News the current shift is unnecessary and would “introduce dramatically more politics into judicial selection.”
“Our system has worked great for 40 years,” Smith said. “And they do stand for election, after they’re appointed.”