What’s next for the proposed super chancery court?

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The two chambers of the General Assembly are advancing competing versions of a bill seeking to bypass the chancery court in Nashville as the venue for constitutional challenges. The Senate version, which passed 27-6, would create a new super chancery court made up of three judges elected statewide. The House voted 68-23 on Wednesday to establish a special court of appeals comprised of three judges who would stand for retention elections.

The differing approaches appear destined for a conference committee to try to work out the differences. But it’s unclear where the twain might meet.

The Senate measure is sponsored by Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville), a longtime advocate of popular elections for judges. As is Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Hixson). So backing off of the contested election element would be a tough bill to swallow. But after the House decided to go with the appeals court concept, the lower chamber appears locked into the idea replace-retain elections for members of the new bench.

A layer of unease about the bill is that the governor would appoint the members of both versions of the new court, which has led to criticism that he would be able to stack the bench to favor his own legislative initiatives that have either already run into trouble in court, or could do so in the future.

One way to lift that concern would be hold open races for the judicial seats in August 2022 rather than have the new chancellors first be appointed by the governor. But that would only work for the Senate bill, as the House measure by definition involves the appointment of judges.

UPDATE: After extensive closed-door huddling, the Senate has retreated on its demand for electing statewide judges. Under a compromise, the chancellor who lands a legal challenge of constitutional or redistricting matters would be joined by two other chancellors from the remaining two grand divisions to preside over the case.

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