Tennessee groups want to end state elections of judges


By Trent Seibert | for Tennessee Watchdog

A nonprofit political action committee formed as the Tennessee Legislature began work has announced it will educate the public of the “dangers of partisan political pressures on judicial elections and appointments.”

The committee, Tennesseans for Independent Courts, is another group in the mix of what is shaping up to be a hotly contested debate over the future of the state’s judicial branch.

DISORDER IN THE COURT? Some Tennessee groups worry that elected judges can be unduly influenced by their financial backers.

The group was formed Jan. 10 by former personnel commissioner Randy Camp, who served in Gov. Phil Bredesen’s cabinet. Camp was also previously executive director of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.

“We want to start a dialogue about the future of the judiciary,” Camp said. “We’d rather not see the judiciary become a subdivision of governor’s office or a subdivision of the Legislature.”

Camp said he doesn’t mind electing judges — he just doesn’t want them elected in partisan primaries.

“I have an uneasy feeling about judicial candidates having to pick a party and run in a party primary,” he said. “We don’t want ‘the best justice money can buy.’”

Tennesseans for Independent Court will also provide support to judicial candidates who want to run for office without political affiliations and back legislative and gubernatorial candidates who want the same.

Camp declined to say who has pledged financial backing to the organization.

The group’s formation got the attention of the free-market Beacon Center of Tennessee, which is also crafting plans for how judges should be chosen.

“Elections are not the best method for selecting judges, regardless of whether they are partisan or nonpartisan in nature,” Beacon President Justin Owen said. “The best approach is the one that would appear on the ballot in November, rectifying the current unconstitutional process with what the constitution demands.”

Owen also said he saw some irony in this group pushing to reduce political influence.

“It’s a bit troubling to see an organization claim to be committed to reducing the political influence in the judiciary by starting a political action committee. Pot, meet kettle,” Owen said. “Reducing political influence by increasing your own political influence doesn’t quite jive, unless the goal is to merely reduce someone else’s political influence.”

Camp, too, has held many political posts in Tennessee. Including his time with Bredesen, he also served as congressional aide to Democratic congressman Ed Jones in the 1970’s and served as chief of staff to Democratic Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder in the 1980’s.

Camp also ran as a Democrat in 2008 for state Senate in West Tennessee’s 26th District. The contest was brutal, with Camp being hit with a series of letters from his ex-wife and ex-wife’s family that found their way to mailboxes across the district in the last weeks of the campaign, with claims of Camp’s adultery during his marriage and that “when confronted with an inconvenient pregnancy, he counseled abortion.”

Camp denied such claims at the time, saying he was both pro-life and pro-traditional values. The Republican Party and the campaign of then-Rep. Dolores Gresham, who ended up winning the seat, denied any involvement in the letters.

Camp, though, said this current effort wasn’t a political one and pointed to his time as an attorney and a general sessions/juvenile judge in Crockett County.

“I’ve always been fairly political, except when it comes to the courts,” Camp said.

While the fight over the next direction of the court may be gearing up to be a political fight, too, the debate over the judiciary has been simmering under the surface for years.

For example, on 1994, the General Assembly enacted the “Tennessee Plan,” meaning that voters would no longer elect state supreme court judges, as they had since 1853. Rather, a panel picks three.

This has been subject to plenty of litigation and debate because the Tennessee Constitution says that judges shall be “elected by qualified voters.”

The debate over judges this year will likely reach a fever pitch.

A measure on the ballot in November will ask Tennessee voters whether they to keep the current system of judicial appointment and retention or not.

If approved, the measure will allow the governor to appoint judges to the supreme court and courts of appeal subject to confirmation by the General Assembly. The appointed judge would serve an eight-year term. Thereafter, the judge could serve another term via a retention election by voters.

Camp said that while Tennesseans for Independent Courts is still in its formative stages, it will soon have grassroots efforts going throughout the state.

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