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Welcome to Tennessee, where lawmakers are trying to kneecap judges
So much for checks and balances
Welcome to The Volunteer State!
Welcome to The Volunteer State! (Cameron Davidson/Corbis)
I

n state houses around the country, January often brings the emergence of many of the year's most dubious legislative proposals. January is the month of patently unconstitutional bans on "sharia law." It is the month of promoting the unlawful practice of jury nullification. But mostly it's the month for legislators to attack the independence of the judiciary.

Again this year, all over the country, state lawmakers have introduced bills to curb their cousins in the judicial branch. In Oklahoma, lawmakers want to remove from the Code of Judicial Conduct references to judicial independence. In Kansas and New York, state lawmakers want to force trial judges to render their decisions within a certain time or be forced out of office. But perhaps the most egregious of this year's crop of ill-advised measures comes from Tennessee, where lawmakers have introduced a bill that combines many of these bad measures from other states into one big ball of scorn for the state's judiciary.

SB 2322, as the Tennessee bill is known, seeks to replace the administrative office of the state courts with the treasurer's office, which is part of the executive branch of state government. The state Supreme Court would no longer be able to "direct" the work of the court administrator but rather "urge" executive branch officials to take certain action. The bill would shut down the state's judicial disciplinary board, now under the auspices of the judicial branch, and replace it with a new review board that would answer, again, to the state treasurer. That board would be made up of political appointees from the executive and legislative branches of government. Judges would be prohibited from serving on a board evaluating the work of the judiciary.

If that were all SB 2322 did, it would be bad enough. Each of the above components of the pending legislation violates separation of powers principles and constitutes impermissible encroachment upon basic judicial functions. It is axiomatic that judges should have the power and authority to administer their own affairs, as they do in every other jurisdiction in the nation, and should not be precluded from evaluating the disciplinary issues that arise within their profession. You don't need to be a political scientist to understand the pressure the executive branch would be able to wield over Tennessee's judiciary if the legislature were to enact this bill.

But there is more. SB 2322 seeks to dramatically alter the nature of death penalty procedures in a way that undermines core judicial functions. Judges would not be able to extend filing deadlines in capital cases — even if such extensions were justified and necessary to ensure the constitutional rights of defendants. And judges also would be forced to meet their own deadlines for resolving capital cases, even if they were not ready to do so. Meanwhile, lawyers representing indigent capital defendants would be required to reimburse the state if they were later found to have rendered "ineffective assistance of counsel," a requirement that would make it materially harder for indigent defendants in the state to get a court-appointed lawyer willing to take the case.

These proposed measures, too, are patently unconstitutional incursions into the judiciary's work. But they also happen to be bad ideas beyond their constitutional dimensions. Forcing judges to rush their decisions won't make those decisions more accurate or justifiable — and that won't ultimately save Tennessee taxpayers from the costs of appellate work. And precluding capital defendants from seeking more time to file their court papers — so they can better evaluate evidence, for example — won't help root out instances of false confessions, or flawed eyewitness testimony, or prosecutorial misconduct.

Experts who study these sorts of bills are, quite naturally, both alarmed and disappointed. "There's a reason no other state in the country has such a system, Bert Brandenburg, the executive director of Justice at Stake, told me Monday. "It denies the courts the most basic of administrative functions and seeks to make our courts of law answer to politicians instead of the law."

Tennessee's judicial branch is not perfect. No branch of government anywhere is perfect. But it is reckless to think that the best solution to perceived problems within this state's judiciary is to turn control of it over to the executive branch. There is a reason that our systems of government have three branches that are asked to provide checks and balances upon each other. What SB 2322 would do it upset that balance, and preclude those checks, in a way that surely would end up harming the people of Tennessee.

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News. He has covered the law and justice beat since 1997 and was the 2012 winner of the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award for commentary.

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