NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — The Tennessee Bar Association expressed “extreme concern” over a bill introduced in the Tennessee Legislature last week seeking the removal of a judge, warning Tuesday that the measure could weaken the independence of the state’s judiciary.
“We believe House Resolution 23 (HR 23) will have a chilling effect on the administration of justice in our state, and threatens the bedrock principle of separation of powers, which lies at the core of Tennessee's system of government,” the association said in a statement that it emphasized was “not intended to be political or partisan, but instead one of extreme concern and caution.”
Last week, Representative Tim Rudd, a Republican representing Murfreesboro, introduced the bill that establishes a committee to consider the removal of Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle over a ruling she made last June that expanded voting by mail during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the Tennessee Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Lyle’s decision in August, the judge said in her order the state was too restrictive in interpreting its election law to the point of squeezing the right to vote at a time when voters were navigating both a national election and a pandemic.
A few days later, Lyle hinted at criminal contempt for the state’s attorneys after she said during a follow-up hearing they failed to follow her original order.
Ultimately, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled the state had an interested in preserving the integrity of the election. One justice issued a partial dissent.
Rudd’s bill said Lyle did not have the authority to alter state law in a way that went against the will of the legislature.
“Chancellor Lyle has committed serious ethical violations and abused her authority by pursuing a personal and partisan agenda in violation of state law and her oath of office,” the eight-page bill states.
The bill would form a 10-person committee – made up of state representatives and senators – that would hold a hearing over whether to remove Lyle. The process is spelled out in the Tennessee Constitution.
But according to the Tennessee Bar Association, this is the first time the process could be used to seek a judge’s removal over a ruling they made.
Furthermore, the bar said there were many ways for the state to address the actions of its judges: from the Board of Judicial Conduct to the appeals process to the ballot box when a judge seeks reelection.
“The TBA is concerned that HR 23, if successful, will create a precedent that any time a judge rules against the state, or on a statute, or renders a politically unpopular decision, that decision could potentially trigger legislative removal proceedings against that judge,” the association said. “This also results in the potential for removing a judge any time a ruling is overturned on appeal, when in fact the act of the appeal is a clear measure that the legal process is working appropriately.”
The bill has been referred to the Tennessee House’s Civil Justice Subcommittee.