NASHVILLE—Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has made Tennessee Supreme Court justices an offer on judicial elections he hopes they can’t refuse.
Ramsey revealed Thursday that he has told Chief Justice Cornelia Clark that he and other Republicans will drop their bill requiring competitive elections for top judges if justices support a constitutional amendment enshrining the present merit-selection plan.
Currently under law, top judges are appointed by the governor and later run on a referendum retention ballot in which Tennesseans cast “yes” or “no” votes on whether to keep the jurists.
Ramsey and other conservative Republicans argue the system is unconstitutional, although variations of the plan have been upheld by the state Supreme Court in 1973 and a special Supreme Court in the 1990s.
Serious opposition to the law began when justices serving in 2000 declared women had a fundamental right to an abortion under the state Constitution.
“I am not in favor of electing Supreme Court justices,” Ramsey said. “I’ve gone on record with that a thousand times. But our Constitution says judges shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state. So either we’re going to do that or we’re going to change our Constitution the right way by having a constitutional amendment that puts the retention ballot into the Constitution.”
Ramsey said he met Wednesday with Clark who, along with other justices and appellate judges, oppose dismantling the current system.
Justices and much of the state’s legal community argue that competitive elections will lead to costly statewide campaigns financed largely by special interests with issues before the courts.
The day before his meeting with Clark, Ramsey broke a 4-4 tie in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the competitive-election bill, which also is opposed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
“That bill needed to advance to make sure that they understood that I’m serious about this,” Ramsey told reporters.
In an email, Supreme Court spokeswoman Laura Click confirmed that Clark and Ramsey met at the chief justice’s request “to discuss Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s committee votes on Tuesday and subsequent press release.” The Senate speaker is also the lieutenant governor.
“Lt. Gov. Ramsey expressed his interest in a constitutional amendment regarding merit selection and merit retention,” Click said. “This is an important issue that the members of the Supreme Court and appellate courts will continue to discuss with their colleagues and with the legislature, as allowed in the Code of Judicial Conduct.”
Lawmakers would have to approve a proposed constitutional amendment both in the 107th General Assembly and in the 108th General Assembly, which takes office in 2013. If approved, it would go on the 2014 ballot for voters to decide.
“Connie Clark asked me, ‘Will I help pass the amendment.’ I said, ‘I’ll stand on a mountain and scream for you if that’s what you want me to do,’” Ramsey said.
Efforts to abolish the current plan, known as the “Tennessee Plan,” is opposed by the Tennessee Bar Association, among other groups.
Asked about Ramsey’s offer, bar association Executive Director Allan Ramsaur said, “our position has consistently been a constitutional amendment is unnecessary because the legislature has the power to determine what’s an election in this situation. But lawyers, as stewards of the justice system, we’re trying to be part of the conversations” if such an amendment is drawn up.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...