An effort to ask Tennessee voters to change how high court judges are selected in Tennessee won final approval by the Senate on a 29-2 vote Thursday.
The legislation still needs a final OK from the House of Representatives that will ultimately need a two-thirds majority, which amounts to 66 votes.
“The people of Tennessee are not presently voting for judges in open contested elections,” said Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. “And the people of Tennessee have never been asked whether or not they favor following the judicial selection plan that our founding fathers of the U.S. Constitution came up with. Let’s give them the chance to vote on that.”
The idea behind the change is to address what critics say is the unconstitutional process of not popularly electing judges. Currently, the governor appoints judges from a list of recommendations. Those judges then are subject to yes/no retention elections.
The change — if voters decide to approve it at the ballot box during the 2014 governor’s election — is modeled after the federal judicial selection practice. It would do away with the list of recommendations the governor has to choose from and would also give the legislature a chance to reject the governor’s appointees. Judges would still be subject to retention elections.
The Tennessee Constitution details that “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” It also states, “The judges of the Circuit and Chancery Courts, and of other inferior Courts, shall be elected by the qualified voters of the district or circuit to which they are to be assigned.”
The situation has been brewing for decades, although the Supreme Court has previously ruled the current practice is unconstitutional. Some GOP lawmakers have tried to push for the state to give up how judges are currently selected and revert to straight popular elections to better align the state with its constitution.
Top GOP leaders, including the governor and speakers, have said they oppose the idea of judges running campaigns.
Several members in the Senate stood up to oppose changing the constitution before the vote, including Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, who ultimately voted for the bill but said she hopes voters reject it so lawmakers can consider popular elections.
“I believe that what we have on the books right now is clearly unconstitutional and we need to do something to make it right,” she said. “I want the people to vote on this. I want them to finally tell us how they feel about it ... then hopefully we’ll go back to doing it right.”
No votes on the constitutional amendment included Sens. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.