NASHVILLE — Gov. Bill Haslam plans to move quickly and select three new state appellate judges from a list of 18 candidates forwarded to him last month in the waning hours of the Judicial Nominating Commission.
"Our working assumption is we will name those in the next 60 days anyway," Haslam told reporters Monday. "The legal guys have said we can go ahead and name those and then they're judges in waiting, I guess."
Among those selected for the expected vacancy in the Eastern Section of the Court of Criminal Appeals was Chattanooga attorney Boyd Patterson, former director of the city's Gang Task Force and an assistant district attorney.
Before going out of existence on July 1, the 17-member commission sent Haslam two three-person panels for each of three court of appeals vacancies expected to occur in 14 months. The three sitting appellate court judges have announced they will not run for re-election and end their terms on Aug. 31, 2014.
State lawmakers did not renew the commission, which screens and nominates judicial candidates to the governor, and it went out of business on July 1. The immediate cause was last-minute squabbling between the House and Senate on any number of bills.
But looming in the background is a dispute over the legality of the current system in which appellate judges, including state Supreme Court justices, are initially appointed by the governor with voters later getting a say in yes/no retention ballots instead of traditional candidate-on-candidate contests.
Critics say the current system is unconstitutional despite it having been upheld by two special Supreme Courts over the years. A proposed constitutional ballot on the 2014 ballot would let voters decide to replace the current system in which the governor appoints judges, subject to legislative approval. It would retain the retention vote.
Before the commission went out of existence, commissioners cranked out lists of recommendations for Haslam to pick from. Ordinarily, the commission would forward a three-nominee panel for each vacancy with the governor able to reject all and the commission nominate three more.
But recognizing they would no longer be around, the commission offered up two slates of three for each expected vacancy.
Now that there is no commission, there is no mechanism in place to recommend candidates for judicial vacancies, at least until the Legislature returns in January. State Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder recently announcing she too will not seek re-election on the retention ballot in 2014.
Some argue Haslam could issue an executive order to resurrect the commission to screen and recommend candidates although the recommendations would be nonbinding.
Haslam said officials are researching what steps can be taken.
"We're looking at what we think legally can happen," the governor told reporters. "I don't know the answer to that yet."
He said the inability to fill vacant judgeships could create hardships in judicial districts, depending on the case load.
Chris Clem, a Chattanooga attorney who served as vice chairman of the nominating commission, recently said he thinks there wouldn't be much of a problem. The appellate judges won't be leaving the bench until nearly 14 months from now, he said. As for any trial court vacancies, other judges can fill the void until lawmakers return, Clem said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...