Legislation that would change Tennessee’s current process for selection of state’s Supreme Court judges was approved by the Senate Government Operations Committee this week. Sponsors say the bill reflects the intent of the constitution that judges are to stand for contested elections.
The legislation provides for the governor to select Supreme Court justices without being filtered and narrowed down to a panel of three selected by the Judicial Selection Commission. The Judicial Selection Commission is made up of members of special interest groups. The legislation also envisions passage of a Constitutional resolution that would allow the people to decide on how judges should be selected in the future, by retention or by popular vote.
The action comes as a result of last year’s vote not to continue the Judicial Selection Commission, the central provision of the state’s current “Tennessee Plan” for selection of Supreme Court and appellate judges. Under the Tennessee Plan, which was adopted in 1994, the governor must choose from three candidates for the state’s appellate and Supreme Court from a list presented by the Judicial Selection Commission. After appointment, the judges then stand for yes-no retention votes at the end of their terms.
Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers said that she looks forward to discussing the bill further in the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. “I believe our current system of selecting judges does not remove politics from the system, but only allows the politics of specific interest groups to be represented,” said Beavers. “I hope we can have a system where the most qualified judges are selected and accountable to the people of Tennessee, as well as a system that adheres to our Constitution.”
Under the bill approved last week, once the current Tennessee Plan process expires in June, the governor would be allowed to make the appointment solely at his discretion until 2014 when the judges could face challengers at the end of their terms. The next step would be the referendum vote to allow Tennesseans to decide whether to amend the constitution to restore the current system of retention elections for Supreme Court justices. This bill would bridge that time gap by giving the governor the sole authority to select and appoint vacancies on the high court in the meantime.
Meanwhile, The Senate Finance Committee has approved a resolution claiming Tennessee’s “sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.” The proposal, SJR 311, is designed to send Congress a message that the federal government has overstepped its Constitutional bounds by mandating a massive amount of federal policies upon the states.
The federal government was created by the states specifically to be an agent of the states, not vice-versa. It was such an important point with the founders that they specifically provided for this sovereignty in our Constitution.”
The resolution also points out that Article IV, Section 4 says, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” In 1992, the United States Supreme Court ruled in New York vs United States, that Congress may not commandeer the legislative and regulatory processes of the states.
The resolution concludes by giving “notice and demand to the federal government, as our agent, to cease and desist, effective immediately, mandates that are beyond the scope of these constitutionally delegated powers.” Upon passage, the resolution will be sent to the President of the United States, Congressional leaders and the Tennessee Congressional delegation.
Twenty-eight states have approved similar resolutions.
Bills in Brief
Confiscation of Weapons / Martial law -- Legislation limiting the power of government to confiscate firearms and restrict the sale of ammunition during martial law was approved this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill, SB 1992, prohibits the confiscation of weapons from law-abiding citizens or restricting the ability to purchase guns and ammunition during times of martial law. The law already makes that provision in cases of a natural disaster or declared emergency.
Escape from police custody -- Legislation that strengthens penalties against those who escape arrest was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. The bill, SB 388, provides that a person commits the offense of escape if they knowingly escapes the lawful custody of a law enforcement officer. A violation of this bill would be a Class A misdemeanor regardless of whether the person was being held for a misdemeanor, civil offense, or felony.
Aggravated Robbery -- Legislation was approved by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee would make offenders who commit aggravated robbery ineligible for parole or early release. The bill, SB 241, requires the offender to serve 100 percent of the their sentence if, on or after July 1, 2009, the person commits aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon, regardless of whether he/she has a prior conviction for aggravated robbery.
Charter Schools – Legislation that strengthens Tennessee’s public charter school law was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week. The legislation, SB 2133, widens eligibility, clarifies funding and addresses rules for renewal of the public charter schools. Tennessee currently has one of the most restrictive public charter school laws in the nation.