The trial lawyer culture was alive and well in the Tennessee General Assembly this week and open government was dealt a blow as a result.
The arcane House Civil Practice Subcommittee apparently does not want Tennesseans to know how their judges are selected at the highest levels of the judiciary in our state. This little known legislative body within the Tennessee General Assembly is where a bill from Gov. Phil Bredesen opening up the state’s Judicial Selection Committee died.
The 17-member Judicial Selection Commission is probably an equally unknown governmental body to most Tennesseans, but it has the potential to have a massive impact on lives of people in our state. This rather secretive panel nominates possible judges for governors to choose from when there is a judicial opening. This includes the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Bredesen’s bill would have made public currently secret interviews with judicial candidates by the selection commission. Bredesen has had his differences with the commission, including complaints the panel produces far too few minority candidates for the bench for the governor to choose from when an opening occurs.
Still, Bredesen makes perfect sense when he questions what logic allows for the essential hiring of a judge — a person with terrific and autocratic power — to happen in total secrecy and under the color of state law. Final deliberations on candidates always occur in private.
Supposedly loyal Democratic House members in turn voted down the bill, suggesting the brotherhood of attorneys in the state Legislature runs deeper than party ties. Outgoing Rep. Rob Briley (D-Nashville) smugly suggested Bredesen wanted to have his cake and eat it too, saying Bredesen should make his interviews with judicial nominees open to the public. Perhaps he should, but if one really believed that then they should have voted for the bill out of principle.
Tennesseans want an open, transparent government they can be proud of leading our state. If judicial nominees have issues in their past they do not want aired publicly then they should consider that before entering the fray. The people of Tennessee should not be punished for that ongoing possibility.