May 1—A Chattanooga attorney is one of the prominent voices speaking out against a bill in the Tennessee legislature that would create a "super court" of three judges initially appointed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee that some say is a politically motivated tactic to control the state's judicial system.
The piece of legislation would create a new statewide chancery court that would hear constitutional challenges, as opposed to the current system in which such cases are heard by a local judge in Nashville. The court would cost $2 million a year.
Republicans note that local judges are elected, and Nashville has one of the most liberal voting constituencies in the state. They objected to a ruling last year by a Nashville judge, Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle, who found that concerns about the spread of COVID-19 qualified under the law as an excuse to cast an absentee ballot rather than going to the polls.
A new amendment to the bill says the governor would appoint the three-judge panel and would also allow the attorney general to move pending cases to the statewide chancery court.
Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis told the Times Free Press on Friday that the idea to have a new statewide chancery court, instead of just local ones, is not only unnecessary but jeopardizes the integrity and independence of the judicial system in Tennessee.
"Our chancery courts have been in existence for well over 150 years," Davis said. "The purpose, supposedly, is to have a statewide court to interpret whether or not something is constitutional. We already have chancery courts throughout the state representing each of the jurisdictions. First off, there's no need to have a new chancery court and second, it's very expensive."
Davis said it's clear that the bill, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is a response to constitutional challenges that have not gone in Republicans' favor over the past few years. Lee's education savings account program and Republicans' fetal heartbeat law are two examples.
"You ask yourself, 'Why is the governor and Sen. Bell, why are they seeking to politicize the judiciary?' Because that's what is happening here," Davis said. "The problem with this is, it erodes public confidence in impartial judges."
For his part, Bell said it's time for Tennessee to come up with a new method to challenge constitutional cases and that too often those cases are "always heard by statute in Davidson County Chancery Court."
"So here's the question: Why judges who are elected by the most liberal constituency in the state?" Bell said last week in Judiciary Committee. "Again, I'm taking this head on — why should they be the ones deciding cases that affect the state in general?"
Bell argues that this proposed process "would put judges in positions to hear cases against the state that more accurately reflect the voters of the state if they're elected statewide."
Davis said it's a rushed "political solution" to an issue Republicans insist is there.
"They don't like the decisions that are currently being handled by the courts of judges who are independenty elected," Davis said. "I think what that does is it creates a shadow judiciary that compromises the integrity of the court system we have and is built on a foundation of political influence."
Davis is leading the resistance to the bill in the legal community and has received support from dozens of professionals across the state, in partnership with the non-partisan, nonprofit Tennessee Small Business Alliance.
In an open letter to Lee and the General Assembly, Davis and others wrote the bill will "cost millions in taxpayer dollars and duplicates a process we already have."
"This is a clear conflict of interest," the letter reads. "Allowing a court comprised of judges who are hand-picked at first by the governor to rule on legal cases challenging the governor's own executive orders and any bills he signs into law is a recipe for disaster. Politicians shouldn't get to pick the players, the field and the referees."
Davis said he his hopeful the growing number of people across the state will influence Lee and others in not allowing the bill to move forward.
The bill first passed the House and then the Senate but with a change. It will now go back to the House for final action.
Times Free Press' statehouse reporter Andy Sher contributed to this report.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.