About a year after the Tennessee legislature set new district lines for itself and the state’s nine members of Congress, it is about to set the district lines for civil and criminal trial court judges at the state level.
Tennessee Lt. Gov. and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey unveiled a “consensus” judicial redistricting proposal Monday, March 11, in Nashville that leaves Shelby County as its own judicial district.
The only change to Shelby County’s 30th Judicial District is it would become the 29th Judicial District.
As it does currently, the district takes in all of Shelby County and does not include any neighboring counties.
“When the issue of judicial redistricting was first presented to me, it was clear action needed to be taken,” Ramsey said Monday, March 11, in a written statement. “After 30 years, the changes experienced in our state need to be reflected in the districts of Tennessee’s judges, district attorneys and public defenders.”
Ramsey also said the 1984 judicial redistricting created “untenable inefficiencies” and was influenced by the politics of the time.
The politics at the time was overwhelmingly Democratic with Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Tennessee legislature and with the 1986 statewide elections, a Democratic governor to go with those majorities and the state’s two Democratic U.S. senators.
“This map corrects those mistakes,” Ramsey added, “and brings our judicial districts into the 21st century.”
Republicans became the majority in both chambers of the legislature in 2010 and attained supermajorities in both chambers in the 2012 legislative elections as well as holding the governor’s mansion and both U.S. Senate seats.
The redistricting takes place in an off-election year in Shelby County to be followed by what politicos call the “big ballot” in 2014. The big ballot is the longest of any election cycle in local politics. It includes not only county offices but also the judicial positions for state courts – both the civil and criminal divisions – that are elected once every eight years.
The two judicial districts in northwest Tennessee that take in Lake, Dyer, Obion and Weakley counties would become a single district.
Further east, the current 22nd judicial district would be expanded to take in Perry and Lewis counties in the 21st district as well as Wayne, Lawrence, Giles and Maury counties.
Rutherford and Williamson counties would become separate countywide judicial districts.
The current countywide judicial district in Coffee County would be merged with the 31st judicial district counties of Warren, Van Buren and Cannon, the latter of which had been paired with Rutherford.
“We’re in agreement that these are some abnormalities that could be addressed without major disruption,” said Allan Fields Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. “We are pleased that we’re not going to have that major disruption going into the octennial election.”
State comptroller Justin P. Wilson told Ramsey and state House Speaker Beth Harwell in February that his office had “insufficient data and outdated case weights” to do weighted caseload studies last year for prosecutors and public defenders. Wilson also said his review of data and results from the last weighted caseload study from January 2007 found it “to be questionable.”
The caseload data for defenders and prosecutors is used in judging funding levels for both groups.
“The current models were developed over 10 years ago and no longer appear to accurately project the number of attorneys needed in District Attorneys’ and Public Defenders’ offices,” Wilson wrote in the February letter.
Ramsaur points out there is more recent caseload data available for judges.
“There is a weighted caseload study for last year for the judges,” he said. “Does there need to be some changes in some of the weights? No doubt about it.”
But there are other factors that come into play as well.
“What we have done over those 30 years is add about 30 judgeships where they were needed,” Ramsaur said. “Rutherford County has tripled in population. But Rutherford County had two judges in 1984. It now has five. The system has flexed and added more resources where it is needed. It was not as difficult as one might think.”
And sometimes the numbers of certain types of case may change but that doesn’t necessarily translate to a lighter caseload.
“There are fewer medical malpractice cases, but they may be more complex now. The bigger cases are the ones that are being tried,” Ramsaur said. “There may be fewer of them. But they take longer than they did 30 years ago.”