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Senate Republicans launched their long-awaited push for a conservative takeover of the state's judiciary this morning. With Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey making a rare appearance to cast the tie-breaking votes, they rammed their judicial selection plan through the Senate Government Operations Committee.
The legislation would disband the bane of the right wing's existence--the 17-member judicial selection commission, which chooses the slate of candidates from which governors appoint new judges. Proponents say the commission has given Tennessee one of the most professional judiciaries in the nation. Conservatives say it gives too many seats to liberals and trial lawyers. They want to return the state to contested popular elections of all judges. They'd like to see home schoolers, bible school teachers and gun dealers deciding the meaning of our constitution.
Under the GOP plan, there would be contested elections of Supreme Court justices in 2014. Meantime, the governor would gain the power to appoint anyone he wants to fill vacancies on the bench. This raises the prospect of justices throwing fund-raisers, running TV ads and making decisions based on how they would play in a political campaign.
"Contested elections are a bad idea because they let money get to our judiciary," Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, said immediately after today's action. "It appears that the judiciary, the last bastion of freedom, justice and equality, is up for sale."
During the committee hearing, Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, derided the judicial selection commission as "a special interest dominated and controlled committee that meets behind closed doors."
He insisted the state constitution does not permit the yes/no retention elections for justices under the current system.
"The day when we ignore the constitution is the day we really spit in the eye of our citizens and we say to them, 'You're no longer necessary. You gave us the power on the front end and now we're going to ignore the plain language of the document that you've given us.'
"We have a judiciary that's not responsive to the citizens. ... If we have no accountability at all for the judiciary, then the citizens have no control whatever over their constitution."
Sen. Tim Barnes
, D-Clarksville: "I think certainly we agree that we should not politicize our judiciary, that it is good to have an independent judiciary. What this does is it puts it in the realm of partisan politics."
Sen. Thelma Harper
, D-Nashville: "Any kook who can get their name on the ballot and can run for judge and get a majority vote, they will be deciding the issues of life. The process that we have is not broken. This is all about control. It's not about what the constitution says or what the constitution does. It's all about control. It is just the wrong thing to do."
Sen. Ophelia Ford
, D-Memphis: "This will literally make it impossible for a black judge in the state of Tennessee to win."