Statewide Chancery Court?

Another attempt to thwart Davidson County's judiciary is moving through the legislature

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The Tennessee Legislature regularly passes unconstitutional legislation. Courts routinely overturn that legislation, because it’s unconstitutional. To sue the state over those bad bills, you have to sue in Davidson County Chancery Court, because that’s where the state capitol is.

Despite LOVING every chance they get to come to town and party hard on their per diems and lobbying party money, Republicans don’t like who Davidson County courts have “control” over the state. Clearly, every judge ruling against a GOP policy must be some kind of liberal judicial activist, because Nashville votes Democratic. The problem is definitely not that they are literally passing unconstitutional bills, nope!

So this year, after getting especially pissed at Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Lyle (who was appointed by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist and is one of the most respected judges in the city) for ruling against them, the legislature has tried to nullify chancery court’s power.

“Why should a chancellor who’s elected by the most liberal constituency in the state of Tennessee be making the decisions for all the state of Tennessee,’ Sen. Mike Bell (R-Riceville), told the Tennessee Lookout last month.

First they tried to push Lyle off the bench. Then they introduced a bill to let people sue the state in the counties where they live, not Nashville. (And if you don’t live in the state, you have to file in Sumner County, that known hotbed of judicial prowess.) Now they’re trying to create a statewide chancery court. Unlike the other attempts, this one might pass.

HB 1130 /SB 868 is a caption bill that was amended this morning to create a new three-person chancery court, with one judge from each Grand Division. The two-page amendment states that Gov. Bill Lee will appoint the three judges by this October. Their appointments will then be voted on as appellate judges are every eight years in a simple retention vote.

“I don’t understand the need for creating a Court of Appeals at the trial court level,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville) said during today’s House Civil Justice Subcommittee meeting. “Isn’t the very nature of this what the Court of Appeals does?

Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville), the bill’s House sponsor, said that since the Court of Appeals would hear appeals from this new court, it’s not usurping local court jurisdiction.

“Let’s have every grand division in this state to have an opinion and see what comes out,” Farmer said.

The thing is, “every grand division” is not representative of the state. Shelby County, the state’s most populous, is is in the West. So is tiny Lake County, the state’s poorest. Davidson County in the Middle is a hell of a lot different than Lewis County, home to a town of very problematic medical care. Knox County is not Greene County, and on and on. And Lee can pick a judge from wherever.

“It’s court-packing … and that’s a severe concern of mine,” Clemmons said, expressing worries Lee would appoint new judges for eight-year terms before any retention votes could be held. Not only will that be long after Lee is out of office (if he is reelected to a second term next year), judicial retention elections haven’t ousted judges in the past, even with millions thrown at them.

“The chancery court is working fine right now,” said Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) in a brief interview. “It’s highly specialized and needs people with that specific legal knowledge.”

Campbell said she was also concerned about the rushed time frame to create the new court.

“It’s a power grab,” Campbell said. “It’s an attack to take over chancery courts because they don’t like decisions that have been made. Bottom line.”

The bill is up in Senate Judiciary at 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT today, April 13. A source tells me that Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) are backing this version of the bill, unlike the others. Which means the legislation is likely to pass.

Separation of powers? What’s that again? The party in power in the Tennessee Legislature has no damn clue.

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