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Monday, May 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Appointments to Judicial Panel Under Scrutiny

NASHVILLE (CN) - A Davidson County grand jury has recommended that charges be brought against two of Tennessee's most powerful politicians for failing to follow state law on appointments to a commission that evaluates judges' performance.

In its term-ending report, the grand jury said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and state House Speaker Beth Harwell failed to follow a law that dictates appointments to the nine-member commission should approximate the state's population with respect to race and gender.

However - and in spite of its suggestion - the body declined to indict the pair itself.

According to that report, which covers grand jury activities between July and September 2014, the alleged violations were brought to its attention by John Jay Hooker, a well-known Nashville attorney and political gadfly who ran for governor in 1970 and 1998, and is running again this year as an independent.

"Mr. Hooker and team presented a very compelling and convincing case and this Grand Jury feels that charges should be brought against Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Speaker of the House Beth Hardwell, who willfully and arrogantly ignored the law ..." wrote Judge Monte Watkins in the report.

Watkins goes on to say that in a state with a population that is 52 percent female, the most recent iteration of the commission was comprised of seven white men, one white woman and one black woman.

While the report doesn't include a demographic comparison of Tennessee's black and white populations, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2013, blacks represented 17 percent of the population.

Ramsey said he and Harwell have done nothing illegal.

"I want to be emphatic about one thing: Speaker Harwell and I have broken no laws. Period," the lieutenant governor told Courthouse News via email. "This report was the result of a washed up Democrat politician's attempt to get publicity for his personal political crusade. That's all it was."

For her part, Harwell has said her four appointments to the commission were a black woman, a Hispanic woman and two white men, which she says fulfilled the requirements of the law.

Hooker, however, maintained during an interview that his only interest is in upholding Tennessee law.

"Before Lt. Gov. Ramsey ever got into public life, I've been involved in trying to protect the integrity of the constitution and the judicial system," Hooker said.

He went on to say that Ramsey and Harwell should stop trying to politicize an issue that involves the integrity of the courts.

"I did not ask the grand jury to take any action against either Ramsey or Beth Harwell, notwithstanding the fact that I well knew, and the grand jury well knew, that they had both violated the law," Hooker said. "I went out of my way to not recommend indictments against them. They're the ones playing politics."

However, the situation plays out, the future of the commission, which disbanded last summer, appears to be largely a moot point. If Tennesseans vote in favor of Amendment 2 on Nov. 4, they will henceforth have the ability to keep or fire appellate judges in retention elections.

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