For those following our coverage of the Tennessee legislature’s consideration of the bill to popularly elected state appellate court judges including Tennessee Supreme Court justices, here is an open letter Lt. Gov. and State Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has posted on his Facebook page.
This is a topic our legal community has discussed and debated extensively for years.
This is Ramsey’s unedited statement in full:
I would like to share with you the reasons for my action and ask you to join me in a call for constitutional reform.
As a conservative, I place great trust in our state constitution. I see the document as a product of the accrued wisdom of our forebears. It should not be ignored just because its requirements may be seen as inconvenient or out of fashion. I honor it, not only because it contains great wisdom, but because it places limits on government and prevents the more dangerous whims of temporary majorities.
Every person elected to an office of public trust in this state takes a solemn oath to defend the constitution. I have taken that oath and I take it seriously.
Our Tennessee Constitution is unambiguous on the subject of judicial elections. Article VI of the Tennessee Constitution states elegantly and concisely that Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state” and that appellate court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of their district.”
In 2009, I led the charge to change the way judges are chosen in our state. In the past, under the original “Tennessee Plan,” special interest groups and trial lawyers held a stranglehold on the process virtually forcing the governor to pick from their approved candidates. During the last legislative session, we passed a modified version of the plan that removed the influence of special interests.
The plan in place now is a good system. It takes the special interests out of the equation and puts the power to select and appoint judges back in the hands of the people you elect. Those appointed judges then stand after every term for what is called a “retention” election, voting yes or no on whether a judge should be retained or replaced.
This is a fair, equitable and efficient way to make sure only the very best judges are interpreting our laws and sitting in judgment of the people of Tennessee.
In fact, there is only one problem with the plan – it is unconstitutional.
While our Supreme Court has twice found retention elections fulfill constitutional requirements, many legal scholars dispute those rulings. I concur with those scholars. Just as every reasonable adult knows what the word “is” means, I think we all know what the word “election” means. Retention elections are not really elections as understood by most citizens.
Again, my decision to move a bill forward that acknowledges the truths self-evident in our constitution does not mean I believe contested judicial elections are in the best interest of Tennessee. I do not.
If I was able to wave a magic wand and decide a new process, I would not choose open election. But I do not get to wave that magic wand.
The constitution is the constitution. Words mean things. For years our federal government has simply ignored the constitutional limitations placed upon it. We now see the whirlwind such a practice reaps.
This is Tennessee — not Washington, DC. We take our word seriously. We take our constitution seriously. We either need to amend the constitution or abide by it. There is no acceptable middle ground.
I challenge you to join with me on this issue. However you think judges should ultimately be chosen, we must agree that the process be constitutional.
Stand with me and demand that the constitution of the state of Tennessee is either followed or changed – but not ignored.”