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New super-chancery court would be appointed by governor, take over cases … against governor

Senators reach to their voting buttons during a floor session on March 16, 2020. Seated from left are Republican Sens. Mark Pody of Lebanon, Paul Rose of Covington, Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Janice Bowling of Tullahoma, and Paul Bailey of Sparta. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest version of the Republican effort to create a statewide chancery court with jurisdiction over constitutional challenges would allow all pending cases to be transferred to the new panel upon the motion of the Attorney General. The initial three members of the court would be appointed by Gov. Bill Lee, who is usually named as the defendant in lawsuits challenging new laws and executive orders.

The governor would select three chancellors — one from each Grand Division — from lists of finalists chosen by the Trial Court Vacancy Commission, which is entirely made up of appointees of the House and Senate speakers. The appointed chancellors would serve until the
August 2022 elections for the next eight-year judicial terms. At that point, the three chancellors would be elected via a statewide popular vote, a process unseen since the state adopted the Tennessee Plan for yes-no retention elections in the 1990s (which was overwhelmingly affirmed in a 2014 constitutional amendment.)

Tennessee currently has only three offices elected statewide: the governor and two U.S. senators. The old Public Service Commission used to be popularly elected — current state Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) was among the last members until then-Gov. Don Sundquist replaced it with the appointed Tennessee Regulatory Authority in 1996.

Here’s the (UPDATED) amendment proposed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville):


SECTION 1. Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 16, Chapter 11, is amended by adding the following as a new part:

16-11-301.

There is created and established a court of original jurisdiction in this state to be designated and styled the statewide chancery court.

16-11-302.

(a) The statewide chancery court shall be composed of three (3) chancellors, of whom no more than one (1) shall reside in each grand division of the state.

(b) The chancellors of the statewide chancery court shall be appointed and elected in the manner provided by § 17-1-103(b) and title 17, chapter 4, part 3; provided, however, that the judicial district for each chancellor is the state of Tennessee and each chancellor must be elected in a statewide election. Candidates for statewide chancery court must file an original nominating petition, pursuant to § 2-5-103.

(c) The governor shall appoint three (3) persons to serve as chancellors of the statewide chancery court, and each person so appointed shall serve in that capacity until September 1, 2022, or until the person’s successor is elected and qualified. At the August 2022 general election, and every eight (8) years thereafter, the qualified voters of the state shall elect three (3) chancellors for a full eight-year term.

(d) The initial terms of the chancellors shall begin on October 1, 2021.

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