Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said Thursday he is trying to cut a deal with the state Supreme Court for a constitutional amendment to let the justices keep running in yes/no retention elections.
Ramsey told reporters he met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark in his office this week and proposed that they join forces to enshrine the judiciary’s thumbs-up-or-down elections in the constitution.
The day before that meeting, Ramsey broke a tie vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance legislation favored by conservative Republicans to make the state’s appellate judges run in competitive elections.
Ramsey said he did it to show the Supreme Court that he means business. Unless the court helps him amend the constitution, he said the Senate will pass the law ending their hard-to-lose yes/no races.
“That bill needed to advance to make sure that they understood that I’m serious about this,” Ramsey said.
Judges are against running in contested elections because they say it would put justice up to sale in Tennessee by forcing them to raise campaign cash and cut backroom political deals.
But for opponents, yes/no elections defy the plain meaning of the state constitution, which says appellate judges “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.” In 1973, the state Supreme Court upheld yes/no elections, but conservatives scoff at that opinion. The court found then that retention elections are OK because the constitution doesn’t specify exactly what kind of elections have to be held.
“I am not in favor of electing Supreme Court justices,” Ramsey said. “I’ve gone on record with that a thousand times. But our constitution says judges shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state. So either we’re going to do that or we’re going to change our constitution the right way by having a constitutional amendment that puts the retention ballot into the constitution.”
At the end of their meeting, Justice Clark told Ramsey “she’ll get back to me,” the senator said. Asked for comment, Clark would confirm through her spokeswoman only that the meeting occurred.
"This is an important issue that the members of the Supreme Court and appellate courts will continue to discuss with their colleagues and with the legislature, as allowed in the Code of Judicial Conduct," the spokeswoman, Laura Click, said in an email.
With the legislature’s approval, a proposed constitutional amendment could go on the ballot for voters in 2014.
“Connie Clark asked me, will I help pass the amendment. I said, ‘I’ll stand on a mountain and scream for you if that’s what you want me to do. So yes, I will help you pass this amendment to make this constitutional,’ ” Ramsey said.
Conservatives also have demanded contested elections to clamp down on what they see as liberal rulings on abortion and death penalty cases. But Ramsey said he thinks voters would approve a constitutional amendment allowing yes/no elections.
“I think if conservatives like me are up there saying that electing Supreme Court justices is not the right way to go and the attorneys and lawyers and judges are saying the same thing, it’ll pass.”