Bench Memos

Tennessee Governor Cozies up to Trial Lawyers

I’ve written before on the problems with the “Missouri Plan” system of choosing state judges via committee rather than leaving that decision to the citizens or their elected representatives. But Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Haslam, is content to let a lawyer-dominated commission constrain his judicial choices. Last Friday he spoke in support of the plan, joining state trial lawyers in defending  the system.  

His comments come just as the system is set to sunset, returning the state to the contested elections it had used since the passage of its post-bellum constitution in 1869. In a breathtaking display of judicial chutzpah, the Tennessee Supreme Court has declared that the state’s 1971 law allowing appointment of judges was consistent with its constitutional provision that ”The Judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” The court reasoned that retention elections held years after the judges were appointed were sufficient to fulfill the constitutional mandate. No word from Haslam or the trial lawyers on whether the same method of selection should be used to “elect” the governor and state legislators.  

Even Haslam’s own lieutenant governor, a defender of the Missouri Plan, has conceded that the present system gives no more than a “wink and nod to the constitution” and that ”a supreme court that can say selection means an election is liable to say anything.” Someone needs to ask Governor Haslam why he is standing with Soros and the trial lawyers instead of the constitution.

Carrie Severino — Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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