Lt. Governor Promises ‘Campaign’ to Sell Constitutional Amendment

Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey says he’ll hit the campaign trail to get a proposed state constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2014. The measure would affect how judges are chosen in Tennessee.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, House Speaker Beth Harwell and Governor Bill Haslam trotted out the constitutional amendment at mid-week. Passage of the measure by referendum would legitimate the ‘Tennessee plan,’ used since 1971 to appoint judges to the bench.

Ramsey says his goal to get conservative judges on the state’s appellate bench. The two speakers, under a law passed last year, name members to the panel that nominates prospective judges.

Now Ramsey has to convince other conservatives that the judge problem is solved.

“Well it’ll take a campaign, a real campaign to make this happen…. I think it can be sold to them, I really do.”

Conservative Republicans have fought for years for elected judges. The new amendment is the opposite of that – it make the appointive system part of the state constitution.

“So I sell them on the fact that as long as I am appointing the Judicial Nominating Commission, and Beth Harwell down the hall is appointing the Judicial Nominating Commission, and Governor [Bill] Haslam is making those appointments, that we’ll get from Point A to Point B, and have those conservative judges that interpret the law, don’t make the law.”

The earliest that voters will get the measure is 2014.

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Conservatives for years have objected to judges ruling that the law may be broader than the actual words on paper. When the Tennessee Supreme Court in the year 2000 found a “right of privacy” inherent in the state constitution that protected a woman’s right to seek an abortion, the issue boiled over in the state.

Since then, conservatives have argued for the state to elect its judges, according to the language of the state constitution.

The “Tennessee Plan” for naming judges actually has its basis in everyday politics. When Republican Winfield Dunn became governor in 1970, he gained the power to name judges, and opposed a medical school for East Tennessee State University.

Democrats ruled the House and the Senate, and they fought through a modified Missouri plan for naming judges. The new governor would have to choose nominees off a list handed in by a panel dominated mostly by lawyers.

Democrats got the Republican votes they needed to make the matter veto-proof by promising East Tennessee Republicans they’d vote for and fund the ETSU medical school.

The Tennessee Plan has since been ruled constitutional twice in the courts, further outraging conservatives.

Ramsey summed up the problem:

“My goal is that we have conservative judges, that interpret the law, not make law. So how do we get there, from where we are now, to getting to that position? And I do not think that elections will get us there.”

Other conservatives have signaled their discomfort with the proposed amendment – which simply rewrites the state constitution to make appointed judges OK.

Pressed on the issue, Ramsey refused to call the reluctance “push-back.”

“I won’t call it ‘push-back,’ but I did get several ideas from other caucus members that they think is better than the one we have. It’s just …there are different positions, that they feel strongly about. There was no disagreement, or pushback. It was just… that they think their idea is the best.

But some conservatives look forward to the debate. Republican Representative Bill Dunn from Knoxville:

“I think it’s a proposal that deserves to be discussed and looked at…obviously there’s going to be the question of who’s on the commission and who appoints them.”

Dunn says he’s comfortable with the values of the current governor and speakers, but he wonders what would happen if other people were elected to those positions.

“Who will be on the nominating commission, and who will appoint them? How will they get on there?”

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