Resolution calling for a modified federal plan for selecting state’s Supreme Court and appellate judges approved by key Senate Committee

(NASHVILLE, TN), April 4, 2012 —  Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee gave approval to a major constitutional amendment resolution sponsored by State Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown)  to appoint state appellate judges in a manner similar to the federal model.  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.  Similarly, under Senate Joint Resolution 710, Tennessee’s Governor would appoint judges to the Supreme Court and state appellate courts, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly for eight year terms. 

“Tennessee deserves and the Constitution demands a more open system for appointing judges,” said Sen. Kelsey.  “This is a proposal that takes the best parts of the federal model and the Tennessee Plan that will give us quality judges who are responsive to the people.”

Tennessee’s Constitution requires that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state,” which concerns many lawmakers who believe the current system does not fully satisfy that mandate despite an Attorney General opinion to the contrary. Earlier this year, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Governor Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell also said legislative action is needed to ensure it is constitutionally correct.

Under the state’s current Tennessee Plan for selecting appellate judges, a 17-member Judicial Nominating Commission 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 appellate judges must stand for approval by the voters after completion of their term, with the people deciding whether or not to “retain” or “replace” them.

Kelsey’s legislation would delete the Judicial Nominating Commission, giving the Governor full authority like the federal model to select the nominee he/she believes is best qualified to serve as judge.  His resolution, however, would keep the current Tennessee Plan provision which gives voters an opportunity to retain or replace the judge through a statewide vote.  Only state Supreme Court and appellate judges would be affected by the proposed changes. Trial court judges would continue to run in contested elections.

If approved by the General Assembly, the 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 after three readings and must receive a two-thirds majority of both chambers in the following legislative session.

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