Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Mickey Barker told the Chattanooga Civitan Club on Friday that moving to partisan elections for judges who serve statewide would be a mistake.
Saying it is vital that judges retain their independence, he said judges already "are under pressure like they have never seen before. There are more and more groups trying to influence the decisions of the courts."
Justice Barker said the Tennessee General Assembly this session may take up the issue of how judges are chosen.
He said three options are:
Leave it as it is
Tweak the current system involving a panel that evaluates judges
Go to partisan elections
Justice Barker said some states, including Alabama, already have political elections for statewide judicial posts.
He said that requires a judge candidate "to go out and raise $3 million to $4 million. The people who give you the money are usually the people who hope you will rule their way."
The speaker said, "Even if the judge is not affected by the contribution, it gives the appearance of impropriety."
Justice Barker, who is from Signal Mountain, cited the 1954 Supreme Court decision overturning segregation. He said afterwards there were many signs urging "Impeach Earl Warren."
He said Justice Warren likely would not have been able to win an election after that decision - if he had faced a popular vote. But he said it is now generally agreed that he made the right decision.
Justice Barker acknowledged there is "no perfect way to select judges."
He said his preference is that there are no judges running under a party label. He said, "I think the judges are there to serve the people, not a political party."
He also said he favors having staggered elections for members of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Under the present system, he said, "All five could be voted out on the same day." He said there needs to be some continuity in place.
Saying Tennessee put in "the Tennessee Plan" to choose judges in 1994, he said, "I personally think we've got a good system."
The plan involves selection of judges through a selection panel and then appointment by the governor from a list of three persons, as well as an evaluation committee and yes or no votes by the people.