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NASHVILLE — Two small judicial districts in the Chattanooga region will become one under a redistricting plan unveiled Monday by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
The scaled-back redistricting plan, the first since 1984, will cut the number of judicial districts across Tennessee from 31 to 29.
One reduction would be accomplished through merging the 14th Judicial District (Coffee County) and the 31st Judicial District, which is comprised of Warren and Van Buren counties. Cannon County, now in the 16th District, would be added to the proposed reconfigured 14th District.
Hamilton County is a stand-alone district and remains untouched. The 10th District, which includes Bradley, Polk, Monroe and McMinn, also is unaffected. And so is the 12th District, now comprised of Rhea, Marion, Franklin, Grundy, Sequatchie and Bledsoe counties.
The plan would have to be approved by the General Assembly before it would go into effect at the start of the next judicial term on Sept. 1, 2014.
But that now looks likely after the judiciary and the Tennessee Bar Association began working behind the scenes with Ramsey to resolve a far more aggressive plan he was proposing.
"We respect above all else the prerogative of the General Assembly to decide the judicial districts," said Gary Wade, chief justice of the state Supreme Court, in a news conference where Ramsey rolled out the plan. "In one regard we are in perfect harmony, and that is to deliver to the people of Tennessee an accountable judiciary, one that works as efficiently as possible."
The proposal also creates one-county judicial districts for Rutherford and Williamson counties because of the exploding growth in the counties encircling Nashville.
Two rural West Tennessee districts also will be combined. Ramsey pegged the cost savings at $600,000 for that and the Middle Tennessee merger involving Coffee, Cannon, Warren and Van Buren counties.
That's because the state will save money on salary and benefits for four elected positions -- two district attorney generals and two public defenders.
"If you look at the plan we have here, I think it has minimal disruption," Ramsey told reporters. "There was an aggressive plan that we began with, but that was just a working blueprint."
Ramsey said the changes are not expected to affect the positions of existing judges.
Circuit Judge Robert Holloway of Columbia, president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference, said judges had been involved in meetings but did not submit a map.
He said the original plan Senate Republicans were looking at "would have been disruptive across the state, and we fought it vigorously. We compromised on this."
Asked whether judges had felt pressured to come up with a response to his ideas, Ramsey said, "I wouldn't say I scared the devil out of them, but I would say they did become concerned. It was legitimate. I mean, I didn't know any more about this when I started than the average citizen did."
He said "this is the best plan we can get right now and a good one."
The other merged district is in rural Northwest Tennessee. Two judicial districts compromised of Lake, Dyer, Obion and Weakley counties would be merged into a single district.
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, ...