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New Program Designed To Make Sense Of Judicial Ballot

WUOT News, Matt Shafer Powell

Every eight years, appellate court judges in Tennessee are required to run for re-election. Because the eight-year cycle ends in 2014, this year’s ballot will contain a long list of justices and judges.  For the typical voter, many of those names will be unfamiliar. 

That’s why Tennessee will be one of only eight states to participate in a campaign called Informed Voters—Fair Judges, sponsored by the Tennessee Bar Association, the National Association of Women Judges and the League of Women Voters.

The project includes a web site that explains Tennessee’s judicial retention system and gives bios on each of the judges on the ballot.

There are 29 judges in Tennessee’s appellate system, including the five Supreme Court justices.  Justices and judges aren’t required to face an opponent in the election, but are retained or removed by a simple yes/no vote.  The judges’ names will appear on all state ballots, regardless of the region of the state they represent.  Currently, seven of the judges on the bench now have decided to step down before the August election.  Supreme Court appointee Holly Kirby will likely give up her Court of Appeals post before the election as well.  Kirby is set to take her position on the state’s highest court in September.

Since the current system was implemented in 1994, only State Supreme Court Justice Penny White has failed to survive a retention vote.  In 1996, White lost her retention election after her controversial vote helped to overturn a death penalty conviction.

A separate referendum in November 2014 will ask Tennessee voters whether they want the current system of judicial appointment and retention to be part of the state constitution.