D.C. lobby group involved in debate over judge selection

photo Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown
Arkansas-Tennessee Live Blog

A conservative Washington-based lobby group, whose policy director once clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, is jumping with both feet into one of the hottest political games going in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The group is trying to influence state lawmakers when it comes to how state Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges are selected.

State Ethics Commission records show the Judicial Crisis Network and its chief counsel and policy director, Carrie Severino, have hired four lobbyists to push a proposed state constitutional amendment sponsored by Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown.

The group recently retained Estie Harris, Anne Carr and Meagan Frazier of the Smith, Carr & Harris lobbying group, as well as Doug Fisher, of Chattanooga, who recently affiliated with the lobby firm.

Kelsey's proposal would let voters do away with the state's current merit-selection plan in 2014 and replace it with governor nominating appellate judges, who then are confirmed or rejected by the Senate.

The current merit-selection plan provides for an independent committee, appointed by the House and Senate speakers, that screens applicants for vacancies. It then recommends three of them to the governor, who picks one of them. The appointed judges later run on retention ballots in which voters decide whether to retain or oust judges.

Legislative aides say the Judicial Crisis Network has been trying to put pressure on lawmakers to support the Kelsey plan through phone banking of Tennesseans and switching would-be supporters of it directly to lawmakers' offices.

While a special Supreme Court upheld the merit-selection and retention vote plan, conservatives argue it is unconstitutional. The Tennessee Bar Association supports the current plan, saying direct elections could lead to appellate judges from the far right or far left, depending on what money flows in to the various campaigns.

Kelsey's amendment was supposed to run parallel with another proposed amendment sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Germantown, which allows but does not require the state legislature to keep the current merit-selection system.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has supported the merit-selection plan, but earlier this year he joined with Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell to push what became the Norris amendment because of concerns GOP opponents would gut the current system.

Talk in legislative corridors is that Haslam's legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, likes the Kelsey plan. Asked about that as well as where Haslam is on Kelsey's proposal, Haslam spokesman David Smith sidestepped questions about Slatery.

"The governor's first priority is not having elected judges in Tennessee," Smith said in an email. "He supports the current system, but as he's said believes there needs to be clarity."