Tennessee Lawmakers Mull Creation of Statewide Chancery Court

A bill that left the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday seeks to reduce the influence a Nashville court plays in hearing constitutional challenges after it issued an election ruling last year.

In this screenshot of Tennessee’s state Senate Judiciary Committee meeting Tuesday, state Senator Mike Bell discusses his proposal to create a statewide chancery court to hear lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s statutes. (Image via Courthouse News).

(CN) — Tennessee statute directs the Davidson County Chancery Court in downtown Nashville to hear lawsuits challenging state law, according to state lawmakers. But after a judge issued a ruling on voting by mail during the pandemic last year, some of the state’s Republican lawmakers want the venue hearing constitutional challenges to change.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a bill with a 7-2 party-line vote that includes an amendment that would create a statewide chancery court to hear any lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the state’s statutes, executive orders and regulations.

When explaining his proposal, state Senator Mike Bell, a Republican, said the problem with Davidson Chancery Court is that its judges, also called chancellors, are picked by a liberal-leaning constituency in the Nashville area, which is unlike vast swaths of the deeply conservative state.  

“Why should judges who are elected by the most liberal constituency in the state — again, I’m taking this head on — why should they be the ones deciding cases that affect the state in general?” Bell said.

Bell, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, attached the proposal as an amendment to a bill whose description dealt with extending the time a party could appeal class action certification. The amendment, Bell said, made the bill.

Naming a few of notable cases, Bell’s most recent example included a matter last year when Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle expanded access to voting by mail during the pandemic and rebuked the state’s attorneys when she said they ignored her order. The Tennessee Supreme Court reversed Lyle’s order after the state modified its position.

A house resolution introduced by Republican state Representative Tim Rudd at the end of February sought to remove Lyle, saying her ruling abused her power and was unethical. The legislation prompted words of condemnation from the state’s bar associations, who warned a removal of Lyle over her decision would weaken the independence of the state judiciary.

That resolution died in committee.

Besides sitting on the bench of the chancery court in Nashville, Lyle headed the state’s business court pilot project, designed to tackle complex business litigation. She was first appointed to the Davidson Chancery Court in 1995 by then-Governor Don Sundquist, a Republican.

As Bell explained it, his proposal would create a statewide three-member chancery court to hear the civil matters. The bench would be filled initially by Republican Governor Bill Lee’s appointees — one from the western, middle and eastern portions of the state — until September 2022.

Thereafter, the judges would preside over the bench for eight-year terms decided in partisan elections held in August.

Rejecting the idea that the judiciary rides above politics, Bell pointed to the question raised every four years over U.S. presidential candidates’ views on Supreme Court nominees. Democrats and Republicans tend to appoint judges that align with their political philosophies, the lawmaker added.

“I don’t hide from the issue,” Bell said. “I don’t hide from the reason why I’m here with this bill: Because I want judges that reflect the political makeup of the state.”

The effort comes as a similar bill is being considered by the Texas legislature, which is seeking to establish a statewide court of appeals that would field challenges to state law that are frequently handled by an Austin-based court of appeals.

Last year, lawmakers in 17 statehouses introduced 42 bills that attempted to erode state courts, according to a December report by the Brennan Center for Justice. The legislation ranged from a bill that would open up who could carry a gun in Oklahoma courthouses to a Florida bill that would have randomized which court heard constitutional challenges there.

State Senator Katrina Robinson, a Democrat, questioned how the proposal removed partisanship from the judiciary when the state’s Republican governor made the initial appointments.

State Senator Kerry Roberts, a Republican who had questions about the logistics of the judicial elections, said statewide races require deep pockets with which to launch viable campaigns. “I want our chancellors to be the best legal minds, not the wealthiest candidates who overwhelm the others with money,” Roberts said.

Bell said statewide chancellors would be subject to the same campaign finance regulations as other chancellors in the state. Furthermore, Bell said it has been common for Tennessee judges to retire midterm in order to allow the governor to fill their seat, giving those judges an advantage. It’s a pattern he said he expects to continue.

The bill was sent to the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

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