Drive-by Voting: The Aftermath

Yesterday’s surprise vote by Lt. Governor Ramsey may help Tennessee voters decide once and for all whether they want some measure of judicial accountability, though messy, or an “independent” judiciary that is essentially autonomous.

We previously reported about the rarely used maneuver of the Lt. Governor and state Senate Speaker “dropping in” on a standing committee to break a tie vote. Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey did just that on Senate Bill 127, which would set up a contested election process for our state Supreme Court Justices, an idea Bar Associations and the Justices loathe. What was the “method” behind the “madness?” Read on.

Lt. Governor Ramsey has consistently said that he does not think that the current process by which Supreme Court Justices are appointed by the Governor and subsequently face a “keep-don’t keep” retention type election is constitutional. The constitutions says the “judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”

Two years ago there was a big fight over whether to scrap the current system and go back to the regular kind of contested elections that people think of when they think of an “election.” But a court ruling said essentially that a “referendum” was similar enough to an “election” that the term “election” could mean a referendum. Call me crazy, but I think we have different words for those two types of votes because those two processes are, in fact, different. But, that’s another discussion.

When the legislative fight over the current process came to a whimpering end two years ago, it did so with an effort to allow the people to vote on whether our Justices should be elected or appointed dying with it, notwithstanding the gallant efforts of Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris (Collierville). And while not every issue should be put up to popular vote in keeping with our republican form of government (as opposed to pure democracy), when the state’s high court interprets words in our constitution in a way that essentially changes a nearly 200-year-old understanding of those words, it would be more than appropriate for the people to have a chance to decide whether to agree or disagree with that judicially-crafted change. That’s exactly the same reason people should be allowed to vote on the constitutional amendment about the state Supreme Court-created constitutional right to abortion, embodied in Senate Joint Resolution 127. But, again, that is another story.

So, it now becomes clear why Lt. Governor Ramsey stepped in to vote on Wednesday. If Senate Bill 127 is moving and if the Bar Associations and Justices are put at risk of losing what they favor—essentially lifetime appointments for these Justices—then they might be willing to support an effort to let the people vote on a constitutional amendment. In doing so, the people can effectively “adopt” the current process and remove all doubt about its constitutionality or, by rejecting the amendment, tell the legislature, “We want a real vote on our Justices.”

I say, “Let’s vote!” Then maybe we can decide this issue once and for all: Do we want the risk of Justices influenced by political contributions who are subject to public scrutiny, or do we want backroom politicking outside the public eye by which Justices are selected? Do we want some measure of accountability, though messy, or an “independent” judiciary that is essentially autonomous?

Thank you, Lt. Governor Ramsey, for trying to help give us a chance to decide those questions for ourselves.