Tennessee's Justice Holder to Retire; Confusion About Picking Successor

Justice Janice Holder, the first woman to serve as a Tennessee State Supreme Court Chief Justice, has announced her retirement.  Her announcement has come at a time when changes in the selection process for judges are both under way and under consideration, complicating and confusing procedures for filling her seat.

As noted by the Tennessean, Justice Holder’s announcement comes too late for the state’s Judicial Nominating Commission to suggest successors before the commission’s legal authority expires at the end of this month.  Spokespeople for Gov. Bill Haslam and the Administrative Office of the Courts have expressed that it is unclear how Justice Holder’s seat will be filled.

In the past, this commission has been responsible for interviewing appellate court applicants and recommending names to the governor, who in turn has selected one to appoint.   This past April, the Tennessee Legislature adjourned without renewing the state Judicial Nominating Commission, as discussed in Gavel Grab.

Earlier this year, a constitutional amendment was approved by the Tennessee legislature to dismantle merit selection for choosing top judges, subject to approval by voters in a referendum next year.  This plan would give the governor unilateral power to pick judges, subject to confirmation by the legislature. Later, a judge would stand in a  retention (yes-or-no) election to stay on the bench.

Tennessee’s current merit system has been upheld by two state courts and one federal court. Justice at Stake has warned that the Washington-style proposal supported by the legislature would “inject partisan politics into the state’s judicial selection process.”

Justice Holder was appointed to Tennessee’s high court by Gov. Don Sundquist in 1996 and became the first female chief justice in 2008.  Chattanoogan.com highlighted in their profile of Justice Holder that she and two other judges, Cornelia A. Clark and Sharon G. Lee, created the first majority of women on the five-person court, a majority that stands to this day.

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