GOP proposals take aim at Tennessee courts

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Republicans in the Tennessee Legislature are considering several changes to the judiciary branch, with proposals ranging from how judges are appointed and disciplined to whether the courts should even have the power to overturn laws.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters last week that he plans to get fellow lawmakers to take the first step this session toward approving a constitutional amendment to resolve legal questions about the way appeals judges are appointed and retained.

Ramsey said he is joined by Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell in opposing the popular election of Supreme Court justices.

"I'm not in favor of statewide election of judges -- I've been very plain with that," Ramsey said. "Yet at the same time I think when the words are plainly in our constitution that judges shall be elected by the qualified voters of our state, that we need to amend the constitution and take that out."

Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, said he sees the changes as unnecessary because the state Supreme Court has upheld the current system under which the governor appoints appeals judges and they stand for yes-no retention votes after that.

"But if the General Assembly decides a constitutional amendment is necessary, we'll support that, too," he said.

Both chambers would have to approve the proposed constitutional amendment this session in order to keep it on track for going before the voters in 2014. Otherwise the earliest such a measure could go on the ballot would be in 2018.

Ramsey has said fellow Republicans this year said he also expects lawmakers will replace a commission that disciplines Tennessee judges to promote greater transparency. Fellow Republican Sen. Mike Faulk last week filed a bill to replace the Court of the Judiciary with a 16-person Board of Judicial Conduct.

The new panel would have to make quarterly reports to the Legislature on complaints and disciplinary action against judges.

Shelby County Criminal Judge Chris Craft, the judiciary court's presiding judge, acknowledged in legislative hearings last year that panel could have been more transparent in the past, and that officials were working on ways to be open about the types of cases it handles and the kinds of cases that have to be dismissed.

According to the panel's annual report released in August, of the 334 cases disposed of last year, 314, or 94 percent, were dismissed.

Lawyers welcome the proposals in Faulk's bill, Ramsaur said.

"We think a strong and independent body to handle judicial discipline is important," he said.

Meanwhile, a proposal by Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers to eliminate the courts' power to overturn state laws has been met by criticism on both sides of the aisle.

Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said her bill is aimed at reining in what she called out-of-control courts.

"As we've come down through the years, they've used case law to rule on things and we've gotten farther and farther from the constitution," she said. "The courts have taken on a whole new supremacy, where they're making the policy instead of the legislative bodies making the policy."

Democratic Sen. Roy Herron, a Dresden attorney, said judicial oversight is a fundamental part of the way state government works.

"Democracy is threatened by those who would take away the independence of the judiciary," he said. "We ought to look very carefully before the politicians begin to take away the independence of the judiciary in Tennessee."

Fellow Democratic Sen. Andy Berke, a Chattanooga attorney, said it's unlikely Beavers' bill would survive a legal challenge.

"We in government shouldn't be part of a power grab," he said. "Any time you try to grab another branch's powers, the court is likely going to invalidate that."

Ramsey said that even though he often disagrees with judicial decision, Beavers' proposal would go too far.

"That is crossing the line on separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches," he said. "Because we make the law and they interpret the law.

"If you don't like what they're coming down with, then you do everything you can to change the court."

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Associated Press writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.

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