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VOL. 38 | NO. 39 | Friday, September 26, 2014

Criminal charges recommended for Ramsey, Harwell

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A grand jury in Nashville on Friday recommended criminal charges be filed against the Republican speakers of the Tennessee House and Senate for failing to appoint an adequate number of women and minorities to a commission that decides whether Tennessee's appeals judges keep their jobs.

The report said members of the panel heard twice from a team led by perennial political candidate John Jay Hooker, a frequent critic of the state's judicial system, leading them to agree "that charges should be brought" against Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville and House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville.

Ramsey and Harwell "willfully and arrogantly ignored the law requiring these appointments be made in proportion to the population of the state," according to the report, which did not specify which criminal statutes might have been violated.

Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk is reviewing the grand jury report and will make the final decision on whether to file charges, spokeswoman Dorinda Carter told The Associated Press.

The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which recommends whether to retain appeals court judges, is supposed to mirror the state in its makeup of women and minorities, but does not. It is currently composed of seven white men, one white woman and one African-American woman.

One of the grand jurors said at the end of the report that she "couldn't in good conscience" sign the report because of the recommendation against the House and Senate speakers.

WSMV-TV in Nashville first reported the grand jury recommendation.

Harwell told The Tennessean newspaper late Friday that she feels her appointments "followed the spirit and letter of the law" because she had named two women and two men to the commission. The women were African-American and Hispanic, and both men were white.

A Ramsey spokesman declined to comment because the speake r had not yet seen the grand jury report.

In Tennessee, Appeals Court and Supreme Court judges are appointed by the governor, but they face retention elections in order to serve full eight-year terms.

A recommendation from the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that a judge be retained means the judge faces a simple up-down vote in the general election.

A negative vote means a judge faces a contested election, although in reality, judges with negative votes have chosen to simply retire instead of facing a full-fledged campaign with challengers. A judge has lost a retention vote only once.

Ramsey has voiced frustration over the evaluation panel because it rarely recommends replacing judges.

"I don't think that serves much purpose, personally, when everyone - everyone - gets a positive evaluation," Ramsey told reporters last month.

Ramsey has acknowledged that the judicial commission does not adequately reflect the gender and racial m akeup of the state, but he said the law states that those who appoint members "shall strive" to strike the balance, not that they must do so absolutely.

A Nashville judge in January agreed with a Hooker lawsuit claiming the underrepresentation of women on the panel is discriminatory, but declined to issue an injunction that would prevent the panel from meeting.

"They can read the law," Circuit Judge Hamilton Gayden said. "And if they want to meet on Friday and continue to exercise as an invalid commission, that's their business."

The state attorney general's office advised the panel it could go ahead and meet as previously planned.

An AP open records request revealed that a leading conservative member of the evaluation commission said the panel was influenced by partisan politics in deciding whether a judge on the state's highest court was fit to serve.

An Oct. 10 email from panel member Chris Clem to Republican leaders in the state Senate target ed then-Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, a Republican, for not being as conservative as many fellow Republicans liked to believe. Koch has since retired from the bench and been named dean of the Nashville School of Law.

Supreme Court Rule 27 spells out the criteria the commission is supposed to use to evaluate judges. The criteria do not include any kind of political litmus test.

Ramsey this summer spearheaded a high-profile campaign seeking to oust three Democratic Supreme Court justices, pouring in a least $425,000 from his political action committee in the effort to shift the partisan balance of the five-member court.

The justices and their supporters fought back against Ramsey's claims they were soft on crime and supported the federal health care law, raising more than $1 million in support of their retention bids that they ended up winning resoundingly.

The Supreme Court later appointed a Republican attorney general, which Ramsey said helped "bury the hatchet" between the Republican-controlled legislative and the judicial branches of government.

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