Plan Would Strip Party Affiliation From Ballots For Tennessee Judges—But Only In Nashville

Feb 16, 2017

Democrat or Republican? Soon voters in Davidson County might not be told when they go to elect judges.

Republicans argue that'll make the judiciary less biased. But Democrats question their motives.

Many Tennessee communities identify judges by political party on the ballot. But state Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, says they shouldn't, for the good of the courts.

"I think if you make judicial elections partisan, it tends to make the judges more extreme, whether it's a Democrat or a Republican," he says, "and my goal is to make them answerable to the citizens and to the Constitution."

So Dickerson is pushing to ban partisan judicial elections. But not statewide. His measure, Senate Bill 135, would do away with them only in Davidson and Shelby counties.

Dickerson describes it as a starting point toward making more elections non-partisan.

That irks Democrats. They say, for all the high-minded talk about a neutral court, Dickerson's bill is really an attempt to protect a single judge: Nashville Chancellor Bill Young.

The Republican was appointed last year by Gov. Bill Haslam, and his seat on the bench comes up for election in August. Democrats believe their chances of defeating him are greater if he's identified by party.

Young declined to comment on an ongoing legislative matter.

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, says if nonpartisan elections are such a good idea, they should be everywhere. He notes that Shelby County already has nonpartisan judicial election — a decision made by local officials, not the state legislature. Republicans could simply extend that authority to all counties, rather than issue a mandate, Yarbro says.

"But to cloak what is unquestionably a Republican Party power grab in the guise of nonpartisan elections is disingenuous and frankly dishonorable."

Yarbro has filed a measure, Senate Bill 1035, that would make all judicial races nonpartisan. Dickerson says he's open to the proposal.