published Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Judicial election latest disagreement in Tennessee GOP

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    Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey speaks to reporters in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday, March 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Add the election of Supreme Court justices and appellate judges to the list of disagreements between the top two Republicans at the Tennessee Statehouse.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville on Tuesday night broke a 4-4 committee deadlock to advance a bill to require state Supreme Court justices and appeals judges to stand for popular election — a move that fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has opposed.

During last year's gubernatorial campaign, Haslam spoke out in favor of keeping the current system in which the governor appoints justices and appeals judges, who later stand in yes-no retention elections.

Critics point to language in the state constitution requiring all judges to be "elected by the qualified voters of the state," and argue that the Supreme Court has had a conflict of interest in upholding the Tennessee system.

Haslam said during the governor's race last year that he doesn't want politics to interfere with the judicial system and that the existing laws have withstood legal challenges. Spokesman David Smith said Wednesday that Haslam's position hasn't changed.

"The governor believes the current system works well, and while he wants to ensure the process aligns with constitutional guidelines, the court system has assured us the Tennessee Plan does," he said.

Despite professing a strong working relationship, Haslam and Ramsey have disagreed on several key areas during this legislative session, including the extent of teachers' collective bargaining rights and whether the executive branch should have control over medications used to make methamphetamine.

Ramsey, who came in a distant third in the GOP gubernatorial primary last year, has urged supporters on his Facebook page to "stand with me in this cause to make sure we as Republicans are who we say we are."

Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, have endorsed revisions to a bill that would curb teachers' collective bargaining rights, but not go as far as the Senate version that would do away with union negotiations altogether.

Harwell exercised her right as speaker to cast a tiebreaking vote in the House Budget Subcommittee on Wednesday to keep the collective bargaining bill from failing.

Harwell said after the hearing that she understands arguments on both sides of the judicial selection debate, but wants to keep the judiciary "above the political fray."

"We don't want to get into a situation where we have money pouring into these judicial races and tainting a system that has worked pretty well for us," she said.

Ramsey in a press conference last week said disagreements among top Republicans are exaggerated by the media.

"We're not always going to be on the same page, and I know there are some in the press that will do everything they can to drive a wedge between the governor and me, and Beth and me," he said. "And that's not going to happen.

"We're on the same page on just about everything," he said.

But Ramsey has also rejected the governor's proposal to allow his administration to decide whether to require prescriptions for cold medicines used to make meth.

"I don't think we ought to pass any bill that gives our powers over to the executive branch," Ramsey said.

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