A campaign has been mounted to urge Governor Bill Lee to reconsider the recommendations of the Trial Court Vacancy Commission, many of whom are Haslam holdovers.
A vacancy in the courts was created when Governor Bill Lee appointed Carma Dennis McGee, who was a Chancellor for the 24th District Chancery Court to be a Judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals. Dennis McGee replaced Brandon O. Gibson, who was tapped by Governor Lee to be his Senior Advisor.
Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District encompasses Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin and Henry counties.
The 11-member Trial Court Vacancy Commission was established by state statute and has jurisdiction over all trial court vacancies that have occurred since February 1, 2016.
Five members were appointed to staggered two-, four- and six-year terms by each of the Speakers of the state Senate and House, who were Ron Ramsey and Beth Harwell at the time. One member appointed by joint action of both Speakers, who must be an attorney, serves as Chair of the Commission.
Of the initial appointments made by Speakers Ramsey and Harwell in 2016 to the new Trial Court Vacancy Commission, six were holdovers from Haslam’s 2013 Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments, including the Chair of the Commission.
Four Haslam appointees remain on the Commission today, as does three of Harwell’s and one of Ramsey’s.
The Trial Court Vacancy Commission’s charge is to accept applications from qualified attorneys, interview the applicants and then recommend three candidates for consideration by the governor.
In the case of the 24th Judicial District Chancery Court vacancy previously held by Carma Dennis McGee, there were five applications submitted to the Trial Court Vacancy Commission:
- Brent Bradberry, Assistant District Public Defender, 27th Judicial District of Tennessee
- Vance Walker Dennis, Assistant District Attorney General, 24th Judicial District of Tennessee
- Rebecca Griffey, Assistant District Attorney General, 24th Judicial District of Tennessee
- Shon DeBrock Johnson, self-employed in private practice
- Jennifer Twyman King, private practice founding partner of King & King, PLC, Jackson, Tennessee with her husband
The Trial Court Vacancy Commission held a Public Hearing and Interviews on June 25 for the 24th Judicial Chancery Court Vacancy at the Camden Central High School Library Center.
The Commission went into the Public Hearing with a total of 23 recommendation letters for three of the candidates.
Eighteen (18) of the letters were in support of Rebecca Griffey, three were for Jennifer King and two were for Brent Bradberry.
Rebecca Griffey, who is the wife of first-time State Representative Bruce Griffey (R-Paris), is the State Executive Committeewoman for the 24th District of the Tennessee Republican Party.
Griffey’s recommendation letters came from distinguished and diverse sources including U.S. Congressman Mark Green (R-TN-7) as well as State Representatives Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka), Kirk Haston (R-Lobelville), Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), Jay Reedy (R-Erin) and Chris Todd (R-Madison County) and State Senator Jon Stevens (R-Huntingdon), as well as numerous colleagues in the legal profession.
The recommendation by Senator Stevens, as a practicing attorney with 16 years’ experience in rural West Tennessee and senator representing three of the counties in the 24th Judicial District, is particularly relevant and detailed.
Senator Stevens noted that Griffey has the most practice experience of the applicants for the appointment. He elaborated that Griffey has practiced both civil and criminal law, served as both plaintiff and defense counsel, practiced in both large metropolitan cities and small rural towns, and her experience covers both the private and public sector.
King’s recommendation letters came from two attorneys and one from the chief operating officer of a women’s clinic.
Bradberry’s recommendation letters came from his pastor and a retired judge.
The Commission, which voted the same day of the Public Hearing, selected Bradberry, Dennis and King and forwarded the names to Governor Lee for his consideration on June 25.
Since then, there has been an effort to urge Governor Lee to appoint Griffey as the 24th Judicial District Chancellor.
Harvey Durham, Chairman of Citizens United in Honoring our Veterans, former McNairy County Co-Chair Trump for President, and County Chairman Lee for Governor, started the effort with a letter to Governor Lee “to hopefully prevent a mistake sent to you.”
First expressing concern about the Governor Haslam appointed Commission, Durham maintains that with his qualified staff to assist in the decision, the Commission isn’t needed at all or should it at least be a Governor Lee appointed Commission.
Durham pointed out that Henry County, with a population of approximately 32,450, is the largest in the district and, although it is not, it should be represented on the bench.
He also encouraged that the female Judge should be replaced by another female.
Durham’s arguments against the candidates forwarded on by the Commission are that Vance Dennis, a close friend of his and a first cousin to Judge Carmen Dennis McGee who he would be replacing, would be the third from Hardin County.
Meanwhile, Jennifer King has not worked in the Judicial District and is not a Republican, according to Durham, and Bradberry has been an attorney for less than seven years.
Griffey’s notable attributes, according to Durham’s appeal to the Governor, include her being “by far the strongest and most qualified candidate in the 24th Judicial District” and her work in all five counties, unlike most of the other candidates.
Durham told Governor Lee in his letter that “this would be a great injustice and I pray that you reject the findings on the committee and ask that all applicants be sent to you for evaluation.”
In addition to the letter from Durham, Governor Lee was written to by Tess Robbins and Joe Poe, Chair and Co-Chair, respectively, of the Henry County GOP as well as Matt Jones and Sandy Edwards, Chairman and Past Chairman, respectively, of the Benton County GOP. The heads of both organizations requested Governor Lee’s consideration of Rebecca Griffey for his 24th District Judicial appointment.
Durham took his efforts a step further by arranging a meeting with two members of Governor Lee’s cabinet, during which he pointed out that of the 23 total letters written to the Commission, 17 of those letters were written in support of Ms. Griffey, from very key people in the area, including Congressman Mark Green.
Griffey’s husband, Bruce, in his first term as a State Representative sponsored several pieces of legislation that some considered controversial and voted against Governor Lee’s primary legislative initiative, Education Savings Accounts.
As required by state statute with vacancies that occur more than 30 days from the next regular August election, Governor Lee’s appointee will need to run in the next regular August election, which will be in 2020.
The successful candidate from the 2020 election will then fulfill the remainder of the eight-year term of Republican Chancellor Carma Dennis McGee, elected in 2014 by a narrow 104-vote margin over her Democratic opponent. Retention elections will be held in 2022 for all judges on the eight-year cycle.