Critics of the way Tennessee names its Supreme Court justices and appellate judges are waving a caution flag. Governor Bill Haslam proposed making the much-debated judicial selection process more permanent by writing it into the state constitution.
At least 30 states follow similar methods, meant to reduce the politics inherent in selecting judges. In Tennessee, the governor picks from three candidates chosen by a nominating commission. The appointed judges then stand for retention elections every eight years.
Naysayers like Vanderbilt’s Brian Fitzpatrick, *who has argued against the current process on behalf of the conservative Federalist Society, point out that in its 40-year history, only one judge has ever been voted out of office, calling the elections a “dog and pony show.”
“If we’re going to go to the trouble of amending the constitution, we better be sure that what we’re putting in there is the best. And I have some serious doubts that our current system is the best system.”
Fitzpatrick would prefer to take voters out of the equation altogether and follow a system similar to the process of appointing federal judges. Still others want direct elections.
Republican Bill Dunn of Knoxville says the nominating commission is flawed. The members are named by the speakers of the House and Senate.
“If we’re worried about political campaigns – some people having undue influence in a statewide race. Wouldn’t it be easier to have undue influence on just a few people who then appoint people to a commission?”
Still, Rep. Dunn says Governor Haslam’s constitutional amendment is worth discussing. He won’t have much choice since the speakers of both chambers have already signed on.
Haslam also enjoys the backing of the influential Tennessee Bar Association, which has 11,000 members. Executive director Allan Ramsaur says the current system works pretty well.
“We and others have been spending way too much time discussing this. But even if there’s a constitutional amendment, there’s going to continue to be discussion about the details.”
Ramsaur says he believes a constitutional amendment would only include the framework of the current selection process.
Joe White contributed to this story from the state capitol.
*This story has been updated from the original to reflect Fitzpatrick’s association with the Federalist Society.