Gavel Grab

Sparks Fly over Proposal to Dump TN Merit System

A proposal to dump merit selection and replace it with election of the Tennessee’s highest judges is provoking some sizzling debate.

Here’s the headline from an article in the Nashville Scene about the debate: “Conservatives want judges to sing for their supper and submit to contested election — but will that pimp out the bench?”

For readers accustomed to more staid reporting, this piece may come as a jolting — or perhaps welcome — change. It also hits on high points of the debate. Here is state Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade (photo at right), who has contributed campaign money to an opponent (see Gavel Grab) of an advocate for the switch:

“I cannot think of anything more disturbing about the future of the judiciary than to have these court races subjected to partisan, highly financed elections where basically whoever’s able to generate the most in contributions is going to be the likely winner….A great judge is like a referee in a football game. To have one side or the other cheering for the referee is a little bit unseemly to me.”

The elections advocate, Republican state Sen. Mike Bell, criticized action by some defenders of the selection system. According to the article, Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts “is hitting up the biggest law firms for cash to fund” the defense. Bell had this to say:

“It does have the appearance of impropriety…These law firms go before the very courts that this system tends to protect because it lets the judges run for re-election without having to face any competition.

“They’re trying to protect the system that they control right now. They don’t want the people having any say.”

Tom Lawless, treasurer for the fundraising group, responded, “”We aren’t shaking anybody down.” He added, “Nothing could be further from the truth. Personally, I resent the implication that I’m trying to lean on somebody. I’m not.”

Chief Justice Cornelia Clark said in a statement, “We believe that the current method of selecting and electing judges preserves those values and encourages a qualified, accountable and diverse judiciary. …

“Merit retention elections protect our state from the multimillion-dollar elections that have become the norm in states such as Alabama and Illinois, where recent campaigns for a single seat on the Supreme Court have topped $8 million.”

Justice Wade said his campaign contribution “was not a targeted gift against anyone.”

To learn more about appointment and retention systems for selecting judges, visit Justice at Stake’s issues page about them.

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