(CN) – Supporters of a proposed amendment to the Tennessee constitution changing how appellate and supreme court vacancies are filled say the measure will curb the power of special interests; opponents, however, contend the measure threatens the very concept of self-governance.
If the measure, Amendment 2 on this year’s ballot, is endorsed at the polls in November, the governor will appoint appellate judges, the state legislature will confirm or reject the appointments, and voters will choose whether to keep or fire the judges in retention elections at the end of their terms.
The measure would not change the way trial court judges are selected, because they are chosen in local elections, according to a website in support of the amendment.
Judicial vacancies are currently filled by the Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments.
The proposed amendment affects the selection of the five state supreme court justices, 12 Tennessee Court of Appeals judges and 12 judges for the state’s criminal appeals court. Advocates for Amendment 2 say failure to pass it could lead to out-of-state special interest groups influencing Tennessee judges and courts.
“If each of those 29 judges has to run in statewide, contested elections, that is going to flood the state with lots of money for negative ads,” said John Crisp, who works on the Vote Yes on 2 campaign.
The Tennessee Constitution currently reads: “The Judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” However, appellate judges have been selected by a committee and then the governor since 1971 under the Tennessee Plan, which outlines a process for selecting judges based on merit.
Amendment 2 would change the state constitution to say: “Judges of the Supreme Court or any intermediate appellate court shall be appointed for a full term or to fill a vacancy by and at the discretion of the governor; shall be confirmed by the legislature; and thereafter, shall be elected in a retention election by the qualified voters of the state.”
“It’s a change from the way the constitution is currently written, but it actually gives voters multiple votes on influencing the selection of appellate judges,” said Crisp, president of Crisp Communications.
But opponents say the amendment would take away voters’ rights.
“The Tennessee constitution gives the citizens of the state the right to judge the judges who judge us,” said Vote No on 2 spokesman John Avery Emison. “[Amendment 2 is] a step away from self-government.”
Emison told Courthouse News the real question posed by the ballot measure is whether Tennessee citizens should give up the right to elect supreme court and appellate judges.
“The amendment is political cover in that we’re being asked to constitutionalize what is otherwise an unconstitutional system,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Pamela Reeves last week dismissed a lawsuit in Knoxville challenging Tennessee’s procedures for selecting and retaining appellate judges.
“Because the Tennessee Supreme Court has held the Tennessee Plan does not violate the Tennessee Constitution, and there is no federally protected right to be a candidate for a state-court judgeship, these challenges cannot prevail,” Reeves wrote.
The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 4.
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