(NASHVILLE, TN), October 18, 2011 — State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) today introduced Senate Joint Resolution 475, a constitutional amendment to appoint state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model. Under the resolution, the governor would appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the Senate. These judges will serve eight year terms.
The constitutional resolution is the third in a series of announcements by Kelsey in his “12 for ’12” initiative for the next legislative session, which is set to reconvene January 10, 2012.
Many expect judicial selection to be one of the hot-button issues of the 2012 legislative session. The newly created Judicial Nominating Commission is set to begin expiration June 30, 2012 unless the General Assembly decides to renew the commission prior to that date.
Senator Kelsey has been a leading opponent of the current system for selecting appellate judges. Under the current system, the Judicial Nominating Commission proposes three names to the governor, who appoints one from that list to become judge. Judges are then “elected” in a yes-no “election.” The state constitution, however, requires that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”
“The current system is unconstitutional,” said Senator Kelsey. “This is a compromise proposal that will give us quality judges who are responsive to the people.”
This measure could be on the ballot as early as November 2014. Before proceeding to a vote by the people, the resolution must be approved by a simple majority of the legislature in 2012 and must then be approved by a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the following legislative session.
U.S. Supreme Court justices, Courts of Appeals judges, and District Court judges are nominated by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate, as stated in the U.S. Constitution. The “Tennessee Plan” for selecting judges utilizes a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission, including 10 attorney members, which reviews applicants and sends the governor a panel of three nominees for consideration. The governor must then appoint one of the nominees or reject the panel and request a second panel. After being appointed through this process, the judges continue to stand for approval by the voters who decide whether or not to “retain” or “replace” them.
Under Sen. Kelsey’s proposal, Supreme Court justices would serve staggered eight-year terms with the possibility for reappointment. Only state Supreme Court and appellate judges would be affected by the proposed changes. Trial court judges would continue to run in contested elections.
The Tennessee Plan has been a very controversial system since its inception in the late 1970s. It has been criticized heavily for its ties to special interests, lack of transparency, and failure to include citizen input in the initial selection process. As former Governor Bredesen found in his political wrangling with the commission, it also ties the hands of the governor in putting forth the best candidate for office. This resolution provides a simplified system that would remove politics from the selection of state judges.
“Tennessee deserves and the Constitution demands a more open system for appointing judges,” concluded Sen. Kelsey.