published Saturday, September 8th, 2012

Gov. Bill Haslam to name court replacements quickly

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam
Photo by Tracey Trumbull /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LA VERGNE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam intends to put a special state Supreme Court back in action soon after three of his five appointees disqualified themselves last week from hearing a constitutional challenge to appellate judge selections.

The governor said Friday he is working to find "three great replacements" for retired state Supreme Court Justice William "Mickey" Barker, of Signal Mountain; former Supreme Court Justice George H. Brown; and Robert Echols, a former U.S. District Court judge.

"We're in the process of coming up with another three we'll nominate as well," Haslam told reporters after a ribbon-cutting for a new Saks Direct fulfillment center in La Vergne. "Hopefully in the next week or so. We're not far away from that."

Haslam called appointing someone as a special justice "something you have to make certain people are willing to do."

"We're in the process of doing some background checks and then checking people's availability. I wouldn't think it would be more than a week," he said.

The case involves a legal challenge to the state's Tennessee Plan for selecting state Supreme Court and appellate court judges.

The three special justices recused themselves after former gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate John Jay Hooker, who launched the legal challenge, raised questions about their impartiality.

All three have ties to Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts. The group has argued that the General Assembly should not change the current retention system for justices and appellate judges.

Hooker contends the Tennessee Plan, in which the governor appoints appellate judges and voters later decide whether to keep them in office, violates Tennessee constitutional directives for elected judges.

Barker, Brown and Echols wrote in their recusal order that while they "have not formed an opinion" about the issue, "they find that it is of utmost importance to protect the integrity of this court and to avoid allegations challenging the independence, partiality or fairness in its decision-making."

Haslam said Friday that "the fact that somebody has an opinion on something doesn't disqualify them. Judges have opinions on things all the time. I honestly think each one of them could have still rendered a very impartial and fair decision."

The state's retention system has been upheld in two similar challenges.

In 1973, Supreme Court justices ruled that the high court was constitutional because the Tennessee Constitution doesn't specify what sort of elections were required. The following year, state lawmakers took the Supreme Court out of the law but left other appellate judges in.

In 1994, lawmakers applied the retention law again to the Supreme Court. It was upheld by a special Supreme Court in 1998.

Hooker, who has criticized the rulings for years, filed a new challenge this year. The Tennessee Court of Appeals upheld the retention method. Sitting Supreme Court members recused themselves and Haslam named the special court.

Hooker, who is expected to appeal, then filed a motion in Davidson County Chancery Court questioning Barker, Brown and Echol's impartiality and asking Haslam to disqualify them.

about Andy Sher...

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, ...

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