A ‘Drive-by Vote’ by the Speaker

For most of Tennessee’s 200 plus years of history, we actually had contested elections for Supreme Court judges. That ended in 1994. So when a rather contentious debate over restoring real judicial elections came to a close yesterday and a vote was taken, the drama began.

Yesterday I witnessed something that I have only seen twice now in my 17 years on the Hill. It caught everyone in the Senate Judiciary Committee room by surprise. When Lt. Governor and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey walked into the room, you could feel a sense of, “Oh, oh, what’s he doing in here?”!

Yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee took up Senate Bill 127 that would have returned the state to real elections for our state Supreme Court Justices, in keeping with the state Constitution that provides that “the Judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”

For most of Tennessee’s 200 plus years of history, we actually had contested elections for these judges. But beginning in 1994, the legislature turned to a process by which no one was allowed to run against a sitting judge. Under current law, if a judge dies or retires in office, an appointed panel recommends three replacements to the Governor, who appoints someone. Then that person serves for up to two years, until the next statewide election, when that person runs unopposed in a “keep or don’t keep” retention election.

Two years ago there was a contentious battle over whether to tweak the current appointment-retention process or go back to contested elections such as now would be provided by Senate Bill 127.

The Drama Begins

So when a rather contentious debate over Senate Bill 127 came to a close yesterday and a vote was taken, the drama began. The vote was tied four to four when Senator Ken Yager (R-Harriman), the last person in the alphabetical role call, voted “pass.” That left the vote tied.

As soon as Chairwoman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) announced the tie vote, the door behind the committee panel on the right side suddenly opened and in walked Lt. Governor Ramsey. It was like an actor waiting in the wings, ready for his grand entrance onto the stage.

That’s when you could hear guttural noises coming from those in the audience and the air getting sucked out of the room. You see, the Lt. Governor doesn’t really serve on any committees and only votes in a committee IF there is a tie vote he wants to break. That’s what those in the room knew – he could only be there to break a tie, one way or the other.

As Lt. Governor Ramsey slowly strolled behind the panel of legislators, the Chairwoman asked if he’d like to cast a vote and if so, how. Slowing down his walk a bit, he said he did want to vote and he voted in favor of Senate Bill 127. Then he picked up the pace a bit and exited out the door behind the panel on the left side of the room. It was like a “drive-by voting” that killed the hopes of the various Bar Associations that they could defeat the bill.

I don’t know who all knew that Lt. Governor Ramsey would come in to break a tie, if there was one. I got word halfway through the meeting that he might come in, so I had my eyes peeled when the tie vote was announced and knew what to look for. But it seemed pretty clear to me from the reactions of those in the room that not everyone knew what was coming.

The Drama Continues

That the Senate Judiciary Committee voted the bill out doesn’t mean the bill will ultimately pass. It still has to go to the Senate floor, but the votes may be there. And who knows how it will fare in the House Judiciary Committee. But the votes in the House Judiciary Committee may be there, unlike in the past when bills like this were DOA.

We’ll try to keep you informed as the drama unfolds. It’s not an inconsequential matter because everyone who follows the law closely knows that the Supreme Court in every state and the U.S. Supreme Court sit as a de facto “supreme legislature,” rewriting with the pen constitutions and legislative enactments as “interpreters” of the law.