NASHVILLE - The House and Senate are marching in different directions when it comes to how Tennessee Supreme Court justices are elected.
Justices could face challengers in re-election campaigns under a Republican-backed bill that passed the Senate Government Operations Committee on Wednesday.
But House Government Operations Committee members later approved by voice vote a bill that only slightly alters the current system of electing judges, known as the Tennessee Plan.
Earlier in the day, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, the Senate speaker, was called in to break a 4-4 tie on the Senate panel, allowing the bill to proceed with five Republicans voting "yes" and all four Democrats voting "no."
The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, does away with the Judicial Selection Commission, which screens and recommends nominees to the governor for vacancies on the state Supreme Court.
In the current system, voters later vote "yes" or "no" in the next statewide election on whether to "retain" the justices. Under the Senate bill, that would be replaced by direct elections and governors could fill vacancies with whomever they liked.
"I just know that in 1870 when we adopted our Constitution, and it says Supreme Court justices 'shall be elected by qualified votes in the state,' retention ballots were not on their mind," Lt. Gov. Ramsey told reporters later.
The current system has been upheld by two special Supreme Courts. Lt. Gov. Ramsey said he would support allowing voters to decide in 2014 whether to add a constitutional amendment enshrining retention elections.
But Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, noted that the Senate bill is opposed both by trial lawyers and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry for a reason. Having justices run in contested elections "where big money can buy TV ads produced by slick professionals and run statewide is just putting our judiciary up for sale. It's a bad idea," Rep. Fincher said.
Conservative Republicans are pushing the measure because "they think they can get people of their own ideological stripe elected, using the big-money donors that got them elected," he said.
The House Government Operations Committee later in the day passed a bill that Lt. Gov. Ramsey backed last year. It removes an existing provision in law that says the House and Senate speakers must accept nominees for the Judicial Selection Commission made by the Tennessee Bar Association, trial lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors and other specified legal groups.
The Associated Press quoted House Speaker Kent Williams speaking favorably of the bill, noting, "I don't see a lot of problems we have with the system we have now. I think we need to tweak it a little, and that's what we'll try to do."
If the Senate bill becomes law, current Supreme Court Justice Sharon G. Lee, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen last October, could face an election challenger in August 2010. All the justices could face challengers in 2014.
Attempts to renew the Tennessee Plan, which is scheduled to expire June 30, have been blocked for three years by Senate Republicans, who say the Judicial Selection Commission is dominated by liberal lawyers.
Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, an attorney, charged the current system "relegates our Constitution to a document owned by the judiciary and the special interests in Nashville."
Both he and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, voted for the Senate bill.