Published: February 24, 2010
Choosing appellate judges and Supreme Court justices by merit seems to be the most beneficial in Tennessee, a Supreme Court justice said Wednesday to the Rutherford-Cannon Bar Association.
Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch Jr. cited three reasons to favor election by merit:
• Lack of fundraising.
• More access for women and people of color.
• Evaluations of judges.
Koch, who has sought election to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court in six elections, said he has never asked a lawyer for a dime. Because judges run on merit, they don’t have to raise funds for a campaign and thus be indebted to campaign donors.
If elected by popular vote, judges would have to seek donations and the perception would exist that donors receive special consideration.
“That has such a corrosive, terrible effect,” Koch said, adding the merit system reduces the belief that “money talks” in the judicial system.
Under the merit system, woman and minorities have an opportunity to be appointed and later elected as judges and justices.
For example, the state Supreme Court now has three women justices, including Chief Justice Janice M. Holder.
Also, Tennessee has a panel of people, including lawyers and lay people, who evaluate the judges. The panel helps because most people are too busy to name the state Supreme Court justices. The system has been tweaked so now the proceedings are public.
Some legislators suggest a Constitutional Convention to propose electing Supreme Court justices and appellate judges statewide in partisan elections.
Koch said people should make their voices heard about which method they prefer.
In speaking about his duties, Koch said he spends about 40 percent of his time listening to arguments and writing opinions and about 60 percent of his time dealing with outreach and administrative duties. Justices choose which appeals to hear, prepares to hear an oral argument and writes opinions.