Officials: Timing of vote on Supreme Court justice unclear

Friday, July 24, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 30

NASHVILLE (AP) - A new judicial amendment to the state constitution has left an open question about when voters will get a chance to decide on a new Supreme Court justice.

Justice Gary Wade is retiring from the Tennessee Supreme Court to become dean of the Duncan School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University, he told WBIR-TV. He leaves the bench in September, just one year into an eight-year judicial term.

Wade's retirement gives Gov. Bill Haslam a chance to name a Republican successor, giving the court a Republican majority. But the governor's office told The Commercial Appeal ( it is unclear when the public will vote on whether to retain or replace that new judge. It could be in 2016 or not until 2022.

"We anticipate the General Assembly will address the question when they reconvene early next year," Haslam spokeswoman Laura Herzog said.

In the past, an appointee could serve no more than two years before a direct public vote. But language in the amendment ratified last November is vague.

The chief legislative drafter of the amendment is state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown. He said in an email to the newspaper that Wade's successor will not face a retention election until 2022, the end of the current eight-year judicial term. But at least twice before last November's constitutional referendum, Kelsey said an appointee filling a vacancy on the court would face a retention election at the next August statewide election, which would be 2016.

The constitutional amendment also added a requirement that the legislature confirm whomever the governor appoints. But the legislature does not reconvene until January, so a successor will not be able to fill Wade's seat right away unless lawmakers call a special session.