A Tennessee trial court judge has ruled that the composition of the state’s judicial performance evaluation commission violates the state constitution. The challenge was brought by attorney John Jay Hooker, who has “spent decades crusading against the current system of selecting judges for the state Supreme Court and appeals courts.” The statute authorizing the JPE commission to evaluate the performance of judges, and recommend them for or against the retention, on the August ballot in even-numbered years requires that the commission’s membership “approximate the population of the state with respect to race and gender.” According to the judge, the nine-member commission that includes seven white men, one white woman, and one black woman fails to meet this standard. (Fifty-two percent of the state’s citizens are women.) The state has not yet decided whether to appeal the decision.
Despite invalidating the commission’s composition, the judge did not enjoin its operation, and, three days after the ruling, the commission released its final evaluations and recommendations for the appellate judges standing for retention later this year. Though the commission initially suggested that it might recommend against the retention of three judges, all 22 judges on the ballot will receive favorable ratings. One of the three judges under scrutiny opted to retire, and the other two met with the commission for more than two hours and succeeded in changing the minds of some commission members, though these judges’ recommendations for retention are not unanimous.