Chief Justice Defends Tennessee Plan, Calls Direct-Elections for State Judiciary "Ridiculous"

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Janice Holder, chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, dispensed with judicial caution Wednesday, vigorously defending the current Tennessee Plan whereby panels of legal professionals screen candidates for state appellate courts and publicly evaluate them before yes-or-no votes in retention elections.

Addressing the downtown Kiwanis Club at The Peabody, Justice Holder began her luncheon remarks with a tongue-in-cheek announcement. "I'm gong to talk about basketball," she said, presenting a facetious proposal to elect officials taking part in NCAA championship tournaments, allowing them to raise money, use attack ads against election opponents, "and show bits and pieces of video of some of these games where there were bad calls."

After asking rhetorically, "Don't you think that's a more democratic way to go about it?", she answered her own question this way: "It is ridiculous, isn't it? You wouldn't want your officials to be elected." Then came her clincher: "Judges are like those officials. You relay on them to call the game fairly."

She pointed out that the current system was due to sunset in July unless the current legislature reaffirms it and noted, too, the existence of legislative proposals for direct election as well as for modified versions of the current system.

Holder reviewed the mechanics of the Tennessee Plan, whereby a Judicial Selection Commission conducts thorough reviews of candidates for a given appellate positions and recommends lists of appointees to the governor, who can accept one of the nominees or reject the list and ask for a new one. She also explained the companion process whereby a Judicial Evaluation Committee provides advisories on whether sitting appellate judges should maintain their positions in up-or-down retention elections.

"The irony is that what we have is the envy of other states, but we are very much in danger of losing it," Holder said, going on to note several instances of million-dollar expenditures in other states' partisan judicial elections . She described instances in which some of the winners were seemingly influenced later on to make decisions on behalf of special-interest donors.

"Believe me, the entire country is watching Tennessee right now," she said.

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