One of the signature achievements of former Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s legacy — Tennessee’s method for selecting judges — took another step toward extinction today, causing tempers to flare and accusations of mistreatment to fly.
Wilder (D-Mason), a member of the Senate for 44 years and lieutenant governor and Senate speaker for 36 of those years, is retiring this year from the Senate. The state’s current method for picking judges, called the Tennessee Plan, is one of his top achievements.
The Tennessee Plan though may expire on July 1, 2009 after the GOP-controlled Government Operations Committee effectively killed for the year a Wilder-sponsored bill extending the Judicial Selection Commission.
The judicial panel recommends potential judges to the governor to choose among, and assuming the bill doesn’t pass this year, will go into a one-year wind down starting July 1 before expiring next year.
Tempers flared after the legislation was effectively killed.
Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis was seen in a hallway confrontation with Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City), a member of the government operations panel.
Crowe loudly shouted “son of a (expletive deleted)” at Kyle after Kyle said something to him.
When asked about the confrontation afterward, Kyle said: “I just explained to [Crowe] that I thought John Wilder had treated him awfully good during his term as speaker for him not to communicate what his intentions were.”
Kyle said the Republicans mistreated the 86-year old Wilder by “essentially making John Wilder beg them to vote for the bill.”
“I thought it was a real sad day to treat a member like that,” Kyle said afterwards. “The manner in which John Wilder was treated today would be inappropriate for any senator, particularly a fellow who’s been here for 40 years.”
Sen. Dewayne Bunch (R-Cleveland), another GOP member of the committee, called Kyle’s accusation “ludicrous.”
“There’s absolutely no truth to that,” Bunch said.
When asked whether he thought he was mistreated, Wilder said it wasn’t his “opinion to make.”
“I’m not the issue,” Wilder said. “The issue is the Tennessee Plan. I’m not the issue.”
As Wilder prepares to retire, Senate Republicans, led by current Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), are looking at making major changes to the Tennessee Plan to weed out what they say is a system controlled by special interests.
If the Judicial Selection Commission expires next year, the state would return to contested judicial elections in 2010. The GOP argues that’s what the constitution intends as opposed to the state’s current retention elections.