(CN) — A Tennessee House subcommittee declined to advance a bill that sought the removal of a judge whose ruling expanded absentee voting in Tennessee during the Covid-19 pandemic, killing the resolution on a voice vote at its Tuesday morning hearing.
Introduced two weeks ago, the bill would have created a committee made up of House and Senate members to explore the removal of Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, a judge in the Davidson County Chancery Court. The bill claimed she exceeded her judicial authority in her June 2020 ruling.
The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned her ruling, but not before the state changed its position and said it would allow people at risk from Covid-19 to vote absentee. Before the matter was heard by Lyle, the state said it would not loosen its absentee voting rules because of the pandemic.
The resolution to remove Lyle was vastly supported by Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee House – 65 out of 73 GOP representatives had signed onto it – but it was vehemently criticized by state bar associations as a threat to the balance of power among the state’s branches of government.
Indeed, a retired judge told members of the Civil Justice Subcommittee before their vote that the legislation had already had a chilling effect on the state’s judges.
"Judges are out there now, they're aware of what Chancellor Lyle is facing today, and they're wondering 'If I render an unpopular decision in a hot case ... do I stand a chance of losing my job?'" said retired Judge Joe Riley Jr, testifying about the bill.
Riley, who served on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, worked as chief disciplinary counsel of the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary before he retired in 2004.
He said the bill reminded him of the complaints dissatisfied litigants would file about judges, albeit a more sophisticated complaint.
“I've read HR 23, and with all due respect, it sounds eerily familiar with what I used to receive when I was chief disciplinary counsel about other judges: Someone lost, they don't like it, they believe the judge is biased – that's another usual allegation – it wasn't fair and the judge didn't follow the law,” Riley said.
As the meeting began, Representative Tim Rudd, a Republican who introduced the bill, told the subcommittee his witness would be unable to testify because his wife was in the hospital. He asked the subcommittee to push the matter forward on its calendar, but none of the members made a motion to do so.
In an email, Rudd compared the proceedings before the subcommittee to a circus. It had gone out of session to hear from three people opposed to the resolution and then, moments after it went back into session, it moved to vote on the resolution before Rudd had a chance to address it, the lawmaker said.
The state constitution, he said, provides a way for the legislature to remove a judge for cause.
“The people of Tennessee are demanding voter integrity and accountability by an out-of-control judiciary. … Considering more than 60 members of the House of Representatives were co-sponsoring the effort to hold Chancellor Lyle accountable for her attempt to subvert our elections, the actions today by a small handful of members of the House Civil Justice Subcommittee was beneath contempt and very shameful,” Rudd wrote.
Representative Antonio Parkinson, a Democrat representing a district near Memphis, said while he understands the concerns Rudd has, the legislation is a “sledgehammer being applied in this situation.”
Because of it, the lawmaker said, Lyle recused herself from several cases that were on her docket.
“Honestly, whether this resolution moves forward or does not, there will still be a lingering threat that all judges will have in the back of their mind,” Parkinson said.
In the years since Republican Governor Don Sundquist appointed Lyle to the bench in 1995, she has tackled some of the biggest cases in the state. She ruled on the execution protocol used by Tennessee to carry out the death penalty, and the Tennessee Supreme Court appointed her to hear complex business cases in Tennessee’s Business Court Pilot Project.
She is up for reelection in 2022.
In response to the resolution, bar associations such as the Knoxville Bar Association said there are other ways to deal with a judge’s behavior, such as through elections, the Board of Judicial Conduct and the appellate process.
Last week, a group of attorneys formed the Committee for an Independent Judiciary in response to the legislation. About 750 people had joined what it said is a grassroots effort.
In a statement, the committee praised the move of the subcommittee and said it would continue educating people in Tennessee about the importance of an independent judiciary.
“This alarming resolution serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting our state’s independent judiciary for the benefit of all of our citizens,” the committee said.
Tennessee Bar Association President Michelle Greenway Sellers said in a statement its members, “from all political persuasions and views,” were concerned about the resolution.
“We were pleased that the subcommittee arrived at the conclusion it did,” Sellers said.
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