published Sunday, April 15th, 2012

Selecting Tennessee judges

For voters to choose among candidates for most elective public offices, it is generally reasonable for the candidates to present themselves for examination, to express their views on pertinent public issues so the voters may be informed, and then for the voters to decide according to the candidates' character and their points of view.

But for the election of judges, voters also should want to evaluate each candidate according to his knowledge of the law, his impartiality and his good judgment.

It may be difficult for most voters to judge those qualities in advance.

So there are differing views about how the judges in our state should be selected.

Should judicial candidates simply be chosen by popular elections?

Or should judges be appointed by the governor and confirmed by elected legislators, who presumably might be better able to judge qualifications.

Or should judicial candidates be "screened" by a professional committee, before gubernatorial appointment or popular election?

Or should there be some other system?

Someone who aspires to be a judge may be personally popular, but it may be difficult, or impossible, for voters in general to know in advance how knowledgeable of the law a judicial candidate may be, or whether he would be impartial, and not seeking to impose his own preconceived views.

So under the current Tennessee juicial selection system, a commission nominates judicial aspirants, and the governor appoints, with the voters deciding whether to retain them in office.

Some critics say this is not fully in accordance with the Tennessee Constitution, which says Supreme Court judges "shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state."

Obviously, we need for our state constitution and our judicial selection system to be in clear agreement.

While most public officials may best be selected on the basis of the voters' judgment of the candidates' character, general ability and expressed points of view, the qualities we should want in judges might be difficult for voters to discern.

In addition to character, judges should be chosen on the basis of their knowledge of the law, which is something that voters may have a hard time judging.

The candidates must be judged on their personality, on the basis of their character, on the basis of their impartiality and on their general and specific knowledge of what the law is. Good candidates are understandably difficult to find -- and hard to choose between -- regardless of who picks them.

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