Lawmakers tackle question of judicial appointment

The State House and Senate have passed legislation that supporters say will keep politics out of the courtrooms of the state.

Vacancies in judgeships in Tennessee on the state Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges are currently appointed by the governor from names submitted to a Judicial Selection Commission. Interested individuals who meet the criteria submit applications to the commission, which sends three names from those applicants to the governor.

This system is set to “sunset” on July 1, and lawmakers were scrambling to get a new system in place, Sen. Doug Overbey said. If a system is not approved by the House, Senate and signed by the governor, there will be no way to fill vacancies.

At issue is whether judges should be popularly elected or subject to a retention/replace vote. The Senate defeated an amendment (12 for, 22 against) by Sen. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) to SB1573, sponsored by Overbey, on Thursday that would have required popular election of the judges.

State Sen. Doug Overbey said the Senate version of the bill passed 27-5, and the House version passed 58-28. “The House made one change in the bill, and it will be back to us in the Senate tomorrow whether to accept the one amendment the House changed,” he said on Tuesday, June 2.

Overbey said the way the Senate passed the bill, the new Judicial Nominating Commission can send three names, the governor can ask for three more names and there would be a total of six. “The way we passed it, the governor could reject all six names for good cause and could reach down into the pool of folks who had applied for the position,” he said. “The House deleted that reach-down provision.”

Overbey said the Senate would most likely go along with the House version, and the bill would then be sent on to the governor for him to sign it into law. “I have every reason to believe he’ll sign it,” Overbey said.

State Rep. Bob Ramsey said the measure was “ a very good compromise on keeping.”

Overbey said if the lawmakers had done nothing, there would’ve been great confusion because there would’ve been no mechanism to fill vacancies.

Overbey’s bill states that like the old Judicial Selection Commission, the new Judicial Nominating Commission also would have 17 members. “The key difference is under the old system various bar-related groups could send names to the speaker of the House and Senate from which they select members of the judicial selection commission,” he said.

Overbey said on the Judicial Nominating Commission, a website is set up and any member of the public submits application that is gathered by Administrative Office of the Courts (the administrative arm of the State Supreme Court) who then forward those to the speakers of the House and Senate.

Overbey said he believes people want to have a method for selecting judges so that the judges aren’t beholden to special interests or contributors.

Overbey said the measure takes partisan politics out of the courtroom. If appellate and Supreme Court judges were popularly elected, judges would have to campaign and raise money to keep their jobs.

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