A bill introduced in the Tennessee Senate by the chair of the Senate Finance Committee this week would transfer administrative control over the state’s courts out of the hands of the Supreme Court and to the office of the comptroller of the treasury.
SB 2322 starts by removing effectively every reference to the administrative office of the courts (AOC) and the state court administrator and replaces them with the office of the comptroller of the treasury or its head, the state treasurer. The AOC itself would still exist, but as a part of the office of the comptroller of the treasury. Statutory references to the Supreme Court’s ability to “direct” the state court administrator would be changed to provide the Supreme Court could only “urge” an action be taken. All AOC documents would be made open to public inspection as well as those of the board of professional responsibility which oversees attorney discipline in the state.
SB 2322 moves on to disbanding the state’s judicial disciplinary body (board of judicial conduct) and transferring the power to discipline judges to a new judicial standards and review board under the administration of the state treasurer. The board would be made up of appointees by the governor, house speaker, and senate speaker; current or former judges would be prohibited from serving.
In the area of capital punishment the bill effectively eliminates judge’s abilities to extend filing and other deadlines associated with death penalty cases. Fines and reimbursement would be assessed against attorneys if they are paid for by the state and the capital conviction is later overturned due to ineffective assistance of counsel; the attorneys would also be subject to disbarment. Judges would be forced to render decisions on motions and petitions related to death penalty cases within certain deadlines and existing deadlines shortened.
In the area of judicial performance, all documents held by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission would be made public and the Commission disbanded.
There is a portion of the bill contending with judicial selection in case the November 2014 ballot item to shift to a quasi-federal system is rejected. Instead, a quasi-merit selection system would be put in place. The (defunct) Judicial Nominating Commission would be disbanded and as replaced with a new body chosen by the governor and legislative leaders and attached to the office of the comptroller of the treasury. Vacancies in judicial office due to death, resignation, etc. would have to be filled based on lists provided by the new board of judicial nominations. Thereafter those appointed would have to be re-elected in contested (as opposed to retention) elections. The judges of the state’s appellate courts would cease to be elected statewide and would have to be elected by district.