Judicial Selection May Be The One Thing These Tennessee Politicos Agree On

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who is also an attorney (besides playing one on Law and Order), is part of the bi-partisan campaign to continue a merit-based system of selecting judges, even though the state constitution says Tennesseans should elect them directly. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, who is also an attorney (besides playing one on Law and Order), is part of the bi-partisan campaign to continue a merit-based system of selecting judges, even though the state constitution says Tennesseans should elect them directly. Credit: Blake Farmer / WPLN

A campaign to solidify the way Tennessee chooses its 29 appeals court judges has brought together strange bedfellows – from Alberto Gonzales, President George W. Bush’s attorney general to the top Democrat in the state House, Craig Fitzhugh.

This bi-partisan group of mayors, district attorneys, and state lawmakers that gathered at the capitol Tuesday wants to keep a system where the governor appoints judges, and then every eight years voters decide whether to keep them.

“You would probably find a lot of disagreement on this stage about a lot of issues,” Governor Bill Haslam said. “But i think the fact that these outstanding leaders have joined together from across the state with us says a lot.”

They’re supporting a constitutional amendment on the ballot this fall. It effectively puts to bed a decades-long debate over whether the state constitution requires the direct election of all judges.

Even supporters of the current “Tennessee Plan” for selecting judges admit it goes against the constitution, which says, “the judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.”

Former Governor Phil Bredesen says judicial selection is the only issue on which he has offered to help since leaving office in 2010.

“I think it’s that important,” he said. “The people need to have the ultimate control, but when you have elections like this that are down the ballot that are not as visible where there is not as much information available, I just think a much better system is a way of pre-massaging that.”

Nationally, Tennessee’s system is known as a “merit-based” selection process. About half of the states have some such system instead of direct elections.

Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson says appellate judges are asked to rise above politics, which would be impossible if they had to run a statewide campaign.

“[It] shouldn’t be incumbent on them to raise millions of dollars, or [you could have] people coming into here from god knows where with millions of dollars,” Thompson said.

Polling from Vanderbilt University consistently shows many voters like the idea of directly electing judges. But at this point, there’s no organized effort to defeat the constitutional amendment.

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