NASHVILLE - Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper gave Gov. Bill Haslam the legal go-ahead Wednesday to fill judicial vacancies, despite the expiration of the state's Judicial Nominating Commission this summer.
In the legal opinion, dated Wednesday, Cooper said that following a 2009 change in state law, the governor "has the authority to appoint any qualified person to fill a judicial office that becomes vacant after the termination and wind-down of the Judicial Nominating Commission."
Lawmakers ended their session last spring without extending the Judicial Nominating Commission. The panel accepts applications for vacant judgeships and screens applicants.
Last year, lawmakers gave final approval to a proposed state constitutional amendment on the November 2014 ballot. It allows the governor to appoint appellate and Supreme Court judges, subject to legislative approval. They would then run on yes/no retention ballots every eight years.
Haslam's fellow Republicans in the Legislature for years have questioned the constitutionality of the current setup in which the governor appoints appellate judges based on the impartial panel's recommendations. The judges later are subject to retention votes. Critics argue the constitution requires they be elected in traditional elections.
With differing opinions on whether the demise of the Judicial Nominating Commission blocks Haslam from replacing judges who quit or die in office, the governor sought Cooper's advice, spokesman David Smith said Thursday.
"The governor has said he would like to keep our process for selecting judges in Tennessee the same until Tennesseans have the opportunity to vote on the proposed constitutional amendment in 2014," Smith said. "He supports the amendment and believes it answers unresolved questions."
The bottom line on Cooper's opinion, Smith said is "the governor continues to have authority to appoint judges, both trial and appellate, to vacant positions in the absence of the commission.
"The governor will now have further discussions with legislative leadership on next steps in working toward the common goal of a fully functioning judiciary in Tennessee," Smith added.