Former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Herbert Slatery, counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam, called on Nashville's business community Wednesday to actively support a proposed amendment to Tennessee's Constitution regarding the selection of appellate judges.
The proposed amendment seeks to change the current "Tennessee Plan," in which a committee presents a panel of candidates to the governor for his appointment. The proposed "Modified Federal Plan" would do away with the committee, leave appointments solely in the governor's hands to be confirmed or denied by the legislature. In both plans, the public would vote every eight years to retain the appointees.
Opponents of the Tennessee Plan have claimed the retention election violates the state Constitution, and the Tennessee General Assembly terminated the plan under the Sunset Law last June. Haslam resurrected the system until the public could vote on the new amendment — which passed through the state legislature last year — in the upcoming November general election.
At a Tennessee Business Roundtable gathering Wednesday, Bredesen and Slatery painted a picture of the amendment's alternative — politicized and paid-for judicial elections that would undermine the legitimacy of legal decisions.
"What's really at stake here is something fundamental to our third branch of government," Slatery said. "Whether our judges on the highest courts are validly appointed, whether they lawfully hold that position. I think this is the most serious judicial issue in my lifetime."
Opponents of the amendment characterize the proposal as an attempt to wrest judicial selection away from the voting public. But Slatery countered the amendment would only affect the appointment of Tennessee's 29 appellate judges while the state's 154 trial judges would still get on the bench through public elections.
Bredesen called appellate elections a "disaster" and said judges would be voted in through special-interest campaigns.
"The bottom line is that electing judges is largely about social conservatism," Bredesen said. "Putting judges in place that will support socially conservative issues," which, he said, could swing away from the business community's interests.
Slatery announced that Haslam's administration intends to run a public campaign on the issue. Tentatively called "Vote Yes on 2," the campaign will be led by Steven Susano, son of Knoxville Court of Appeals judge Charles Susano.
"The real strength of Tennessee is the strong climate for business we have developed over time," Bredesen said. "The business community has a strong interest in an independent and effective judiciary."