NASHVILLE — Backers of a constitutional amendment meant to settle decades of litigation over how Tennessee picks its judges launched their campaign to persuade voters to approve it Tuesday with a gathering of high-powered political players at the state Capitol.
Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and former Republican Sen. Fred Thompson joined Gov. Bill Haslam to kick off the "Vote Yes on 2" campaign, an effort to win approval for the second of four amendments Tennesseans will vote on this November.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and groups ranging from the Farm Bureau to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry also were on hand to show their support -- on an issue that even backers admitted most Tennesseans probably have not thought much about.
"The way we choose our judges -- the importance of our judges having the confidence of our people -- is the fundamental bedrock of any government," Thompson said. "If you don't have that, you don't have anything else."
The proposed amendment would write into the Tennessee Constitution a system similar to the one the state has used since the 1970s. That system has been challenged repeatedly, most notably by four-time gubernatorial candidate John Jay Hooker.
The amendment would give the governor explicit power to nominate judges to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals, a total of 29 justices. State lawmakers would be given the power to veto the governor's selections, while Tennessee voters would decide every eight years whether those judges can remain on the bench.
Supporters say the amendment improves on the federal court system and would eliminate the possibility that courts could strike down the current system. Such a result could throw four decades of case law into disarray and open the door to direct elections, a system that in other states has led to expensive campaigns and allegations that judges have been influenced by their donors, they said.
The amendment would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor's picks, but otherwise more or less follows the state's current system. It is meant to answer critics, especially Hooker, who claim that process violates a stipulation in the state constitution that judges be "elected by the qualified voters of the state" -- a provision they say can only mean direct elections.
The campaign will run through the fall and could cost millions of dollars, organizers said. It will have to compete for attention with three other constitutional amendments, dealing with abortion, charitable gaming and state taxes. It also could be complicated by two rounds of elections for local judges in May and in August, and a budding campaign to unseat three of the Tennessee Supreme Court's five justices.
"Some really important issues that really make the most difference in the long run, they're more below the radar," Bredesen said. "And I think this is very much one of these issues."