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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Judge Barry Steelman is seen in his courtroom in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman has presided over criminal trials in Chattanooga for nearly a quarter century.

But now, after a Tennessee Supreme Court temporary appointment made last week, the former assistant prosecutor will serve a stint on one of the state's new, special three-judge panels created by state lawmakers earlier this year to hear constitutional and other challenges to state laws, rules and executive orders.

Steelman will join Davidson County Chancellor Anne C. Martin and Shelby County Criminal Court Judge J. Robert Carter Jr., also a former assistant prosecutor, with hearing and deciding one specific case, an appeal filed by a Madison County man who in 1999 pleaded guilty to reduced aggravated rape-related charges.

Martin had previously ruled against the plaintiff, Tarrance Woods, who sued Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch and other state officials because Woods doesn't like having his name remaining on the state's Sex Offender Registry.

Woods was originally charged with aggravated burglary and aggravated rape. The burglary charge was dropped and the aggravated rape charge reduced to facilitation of aggravated rape in a negotiated plea agreement with prosecutors, according to a 2004 Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Court decision.

The new ad hoc panels were approved by the Republican-dominated Tennessee Legislature earlier this year as GOP lawmakers raged against several adverse rulings by Davidson County chancellors on laws and policies that Republicans favored.

Among them was Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Mike Bell, R-Riceville, who has made no secret of his view that liberal-leaning Nashville voters elect chancellors more aligned with their views. That, Bell and others argued, puts them and a number of judicial rulings out of step with most areas of the state.

Among the rulings criticized by Bell and others was a 2020 election ruling by Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbes Lyle, who was initially appointed by a Republican governor but has since run as a Democrat. She held Tennessee must allow mail-in ballots for all voters amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Lyle later announced she will not seek another term.

But Bell's effort to have a three-member permanent "super Chancery Court" with its members elected either by state grand division or statewide ran into trouble not just among Democrats but attorneys and some of Bell's fellow Republican colleagues.

Tennessee state appellate judges, who once were popularly elected, for decades have been nominated for the position with governors either appointing them or not. The judges later run on yes/no retention ballots. And even trial court judges, who still face voters directly, routinely announce they are retiring, allowing for judicial panels to recommend replacements to governors happy to put new judges on the bench.

Efforts by Bell and others drew criticism from the state legal community, as well as from a number of GOP lawmakers who invoked Alabama and former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. Moore served twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court but left office both times after he was suspended for problems. Moore later ran for U.S. Senate, winning the GOP nomination but losing the general election.

At least some lawmakers' concern was that having anyone other than the governor popularly elected statewide would create a political force that could ultimately put legislators on the defensive.

The ad hoc, three-judge panel that Steelman is serving on is the sixth approved by state Supreme Court justices since Republican Gov. Bill Lee signed the process into law earlier this year.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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