NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's handpicked special state Supreme Court ran off the tracks at least temporarily Friday when three of the five justices, including former Chief Justice William "Mickey" Barker, of Signal Mountain, recused themselves.
Haslam had appointed the special Supreme Court to hear a case challenging the constitutionality of how Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges are selected.
Also stepping down were former Supreme Court Justice George H. Brown and Robert Echols, a former U.S. District Court judge.
Critics, including John Jay Hooker, who has challenged Tennessee's current merit-selection system for appellate judges in court, have questioned the appointments of Barker, Brown and Echols.
All three men have ties to Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts, which has lobbied the General Assembly against changing the system.
In an order issued Friday, the three judges said they "have not formed an opinion about the constitutionality of the contested language of the governing the election of appellate judges, they find that it is of utmost importance to protect the integrity of this court and to avoid allegations challenging the independence, partiality or fairnness in its decision-making.
"Accordingly, in view of the history and unusual circumstances of this case, we do hereby enter this Order of Recusal, disqualifying ourselves from participation in this case."
Special Justices Andree Blumstein and W. Morris Kizer did not participate in the order.
A former gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidate, Hooker had filed suit against the current Tennessee Plan, saying the Tennessee Constitution requires direct elections of appellate judges, an issue he has unsuccessfully pursued in the past.
On July 27, the state Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the current Tennessee plan and Haslam appointed the five special justices the same day.
The special Supreme Court on Aug. 8 denied Hooker's pending motion to have it assume jurisdiction over his case because the Court of Appeals had rendered its opinion and there had been no appeal.
Hooker then filed a motion to disqualify Barker, Brown and Echols.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said in an email the governor had "appointed five attorneys with strong reputations and qualifications. He is disappointed that three of the appointees felt it necessary to recuse themselves based on a perceived conflict of interest, but he understands their decision and appreciates their initial willingness to serve."
Smith said the recusals "arose out of an abundance of caution and only substantiate their good faith and character because it is probably unnecessary. No appeal has been filed with the Supreme Court."
The spokesman said "judicial selection in Tennessee has been discussed and analyzed for decades. Having a personal position does not disqualify a judge from serving or applying the law. Judges do that every day."