Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Our Supreme Court Justices Deserve to be Retained

Hello!  My name is Mike Tant and you probably don’t know who I am.  I’m normally not a very public person.  While I may be a stranger, you probably have heard of a commission on which I serve.  For the past six years I have been a member of the Tennessee Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC), the past two years as Vice Chairman. I was appointed by our Lt. Governor and have enjoyed my service to the state.  The Commission is composed of three trial judges, three attorneys, and three representatives of the public at large.  I am one of the non-attorney members. Last fall, when some of our work, (which is by law supposed to be kept confidential) was leaked to the media, we became part of a feeding frenzy about how Tennessee chooses and elects judges for our appellate courts. Our “misdeeds” have been well publicized in the Nashville newspaper and we have been sued by a former candidate for governor. We are the group that is tasked by the legislature to evaluate appellate court judges and issue an opinion to the voting public whether they should be retained or replaced.  I am writing this to share with you what I “know” about the process and the people involved.  I would ask you to consider what is presented here and compare it to the less than accurate information that have been shared by certain members of the media and even some members of the Legislature.

Just this week, according to news reports, several members of the Legislature expressed the opinion that the JPEC is just a “rubber stamp” commission that has never caused a sitting judge to be replaced.  This is a shamefully inaccurate statement.  Unfortunately, we are dealing with politicians who prefer a public lynching of judges that are on the wrong side of the current political reality.  In fact, those same legislatures have written into law the criteria that JPEC must use in evaluating each judge.  Whether the General Assembly likes it or not, those criteria do not include whether the judge is a Democrat or a Republican; whether the judge is a liberal or a conservative; or whether they are strict constructionist or not. 

The criteria, imposed by the law, which we are bound to use by our oath of office, is to evaluate each judge is to whether they are properly and in a timely manner serving the public, particularly those that appear before them; and, are they being consistent with the laws of the state.  For each judge we review the results of surveys of their performance completed by practicing attorneys, trial judges, other appellate judges, and court personnel.  Each judge must complete a detailed questionnaire on all their activities which may affect their service on the bench.  They also have to submit financial and conflict of interest information. We also receive a tabulation of how long it takes for each judge to issue an opinion.  Each judge is required to submit copies of several opinions they have authored for review by the Commission.  All of this information is by law to be held in confidence by JPEC.  Each judge appears in person before the Commission for an interview.  The meetings, during which the interviews are conducted, are open to the public. 

Following the interview process, the Commission meets in executive session to discuss the performance of each judge and take a preliminary vote. If the majority of the Commission believes a particular judge is not performing at an acceptable level, that judge is so notified in confidence.  The law is quite clear that the preliminary decisions of JPEC are confidential until they have been forwarded to the specific judge and that judge has had an opportunity to request a re-hearing before the Commission. The Legislature, in its wisdom, saw that a judge who may not have met the expectations of the office during his term, has the option to either appeal to the Commission or chose to retire.  It should be noted that during my tenure on the Commission, several judges have chosen to retire rather than choose to stand for re-election knowing they may receive a negative assessment.  By law, the Commission is not permitted to publically identify a judge who makes this decision.  (I should note that also during my tenure, there have also been several judges who retired early due to health or personal reasons.)

 When I was sworn in as a member of the Commission, I took an oath to abide by the laws governing the Commission.  I am completely comfortable that I have fulfilled that oath.  Several individuals have argued that the Commission did not follow the Tennessee Constitution because we have recommended judges for retention.  The Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that the Tennessee Plan, as it presently exists, is consistent with the Constitution.  The law governing the operation of the JPEC and the rulings of the Supreme Court are the things that govern our operation – not media opinions or individuals who do not like the rulings of the Supreme Court.

I have always been a supporter of the Missouri Plan (the model for the Tennessee Plan) because it keeps partisan politics out of the judicial process.  I have interviewed each of the appellate judges at least twice and I can confidently report that this group of individuals should be acknowledged as some of the hardest working people in Tennessee and as individuals whose integrity rises above partisan politics.  Though I am normally a conservative and Republican voter, I whole-heartedly endorse the retention of Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee.  They have served our state with honesty and great honor – they deserve our support and do not deserve the misleading attacks generated by out-of state political operatives.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Cold Day in December
Softly passes the days and the years,
Not much different from all those before;
But then comes that sacred day
That changed the world, our lives, when we lost what we adore!

An Advent morning bright and clear,
An Advent morning full of heavenly expectation and worship,
An Advent morning changed to mourning,
O the ripping of my heart and soul – could I have changed this day with hyssop?

Advent is a time of hope and waiting,
I have neither – only pain and unbelief;
My world has changed, my son is gone,
My only companion, most unwanted, is grief

The date of remembrance menacingly appears on every calendar,
We cannot skip or fail to remember;
The day our joy succumbed too early to death’s demand,
On this cold, cold day in December.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day That Changed America

In the early afternoon of November 22, 1963 I was a Junior at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tennessee.  I was taking an English test.  Not too far into the fifth period an announcement came over the intercom that the President had been shot in Dallas.  Father Cunningham gave us permission to stop the test and pray quietly for President Kennedy.  We were so stunned that I’m not sure how many prayers made it out of that room.  Most of us were trying to make some sense of this unbelievable report.  It was not too long, maybe 10 or 15 minutes later, that the second announcement came – the President was dead!  Our  amazement turned to shock.  I felt like all that I knew about my country up until that time had changed.  I think that my feelings were not too different from those experienced when Americans first learned that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  As I recall, we did not go to our sixth period class but stayed together and listened to the radio reports. 

 After school was dismissed, I was scheduled to work until closing at the Cooper & Martin grocery on Gallatin Road.  When I arrived, everyone was walking around like zombies.  I don’t remember much about what happened  from 3 pm to 10 pm when the store closed.  But what happened then has stuck with me all these years.  It was my normal responsibility to follow the manager of the store to the bank to make the night deposit after the store closed.  After the deposit, he would drive home to Melrose and I would drive home to Inglewood.  That night, he asked me to ride in his car to the bank with him and he would bring me back to the store to get my car.  He had been listening to the radio as he was preparing to close the store and as he was preparing the deposit.  There was a lot of speculation that the fabric of our society had been rent and no one knew what to expect.  He wanted me with him in his car in case he experienced something entirely different from the normal. 

I think we all knew that something at the very core of our existence as a country had changed.   Yes, there had been presidents who were assassinated before (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) but it had been over 60 years since the last and none of us even considered such an occurrence as a possibility.  The Kennedy presidency was the American Camelot – how could it be attacked?  There truly was an age of innocence in America.  It is not that everyone supported President Kennedy – but almost everyone was inspired by the vision of America that he projected: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  That quote from his inauguration speech resonated with the people.  This was before Viet Nam and there was an expectation of great things that our country could do both internally and internationally.  The Appalachian Regional Commission  and the Peace Corps were vehicles for citizens who could volunteer and become involved in transforming cultures both domestic and abroad.  Somehow the hope for the future was extinguished that day and the spectrum of a conflict between good and evil became part of our DNA as Americans – and it has never left.  The America of the early 1960’s was good and a pleasant time to live.  This is more than a romantic ideal conceived in retrospect – it was very real.  But it no longer exists and may be beyond recovery with our present state of uncivility.  Pushing aside the human failings of a murdered president, the ideal of Camelot is still a worthy goal for our country.  May God have mercy.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Dangerous Pit of Task Inertia

I confess that I am not a very faithful blogger, though it is regularly on my “To Do” list.  Speaking of that list, which I have mentioned in several previous blogs, I have come to realize that for all my internal need to feel organized, it has become a form of tyranny in my life.  We’ve probably all heard the expression “the tyranny of the urgent.”  What that expression is intended to convey is that many times the “urgent” in our lives pushes aside the “important.”  I have found this to be so true for me over and over.  I put far too many things on my list – things I need to do; things I want to do; things I wish I could do; things that I wish I could say that I had done, etc. – and they obviously don’t all get done today, or tomorrow, or the next day.  By that time they have become “urgent” for me emotionally and I tend to develop a bad case of "task inertia" – the inability to do anything for want to do everything.  My daughter, Jennifer, understands this much better than I and named her blog “Doing the Next Thing.”  I feel guilty every time I click on her blog (my fault, not her’s).

This morning I ran across this quote by St. Francis de Sales from his book Introduction to the Devout Life.  It really rang true for me as I was thinking about todays “To Do” list.

“Flies harass us more by their number than by their sting.  Similarly, great matters disturb us less than a multitude of small affairs.  Accept the duties which are entrusted to you quietly, and try to fulfill them methodically, one after another.  If you attempt to do everything at once, or with confusion, you will burden yourself with your exertions, and by entangling your mind, you will probably be overwhelmed and accomplish nothing.

In all your affairs rely on God’s Providence, through which alone your plans can succeed.  Meanwhile, on your part, work on in quiet cooperation with God, and then rest satisfied that if you have entrusted your work entirely with Him, you will always obtain the measure of success which is best for you, whether it seems so or not in your own judgment.

Imitate a little child who holds tight with one hand to his father’s, while with the other gathers blackberries from the wayside hedge.  Even so, while you gather and use the world’s goods with one hand, always let the other be secure in your Heavenly Father’s hand, and look around from time to time to make sure that He is satisfied with what you are doing, at home or abroad.  When your ordinary work or business is not particularly engrossing, let your heart be fixed more on God than on it; and, if the work be such as to require your undivided attention, then pause from time to time and look to God, even as navigators do who set their course from the harbor by looking to the heavens rather than down to the depths of the see.  Doing this, you will see that God will work with you, in you, and for you, and your work will be blessed.”

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Day of Lost Hope?

Meditating on the meaning of this day – the day between the crushing tragedy of Good Friday and the exultant joy of the Resurrection, I try to imagine myself as one of the disciples who stayed with the small group at the foot of the cross watching the suffering of this incredible man. 

How could this happen?  A man who was so full of love and compassion for everyone he came in contact with.  Not only is he dead but he was put to death in the most horrible way by the very people he ministered to these past three years.  Where are the people who welcomed him into Jerusalem with loud Hosannas just a few days ago?  Were some of them part of the crowd yelling “Crucify him, crucify him”?

Now he is dead and it is time to take his broken and torn body down from the cross.  The Roman soldiers help because they want to get back to the barracks and they want to save the nails, if possible.  We use a long cloth placed under his arms and across his chest to lower him to waiting and loving arms.  How could this man who performed such powerful miracles weigh so little now?  How could this face that was so contorted just a little while ago, be so peaceful in death?  We wrap him in a white cloth and carry him to a nearby garden tomb provided by the good Joseph.  As we lay him on the rock shelf we all want to touch his body.  We spend some time washing the blood and filth away which only reveals more completely the devastation perpetrated on his body.  It is so hard to look at!  How could people hate someone so fiercely?  I weep some more.  I realize that I am weeping both for this man I love and have followed – and I am weeping for myself, now completely lost and disillusioned.  What will become of me now that all my dreams are gone for good?  Will the blood lust we saw today continue and cause us to be dragged into the pit with those wild dogs?  Yes, I am afraid.  Should I flee Jerusalem this very evening even on the Sabbath which is supposed to be about rest?  If I make the wrong decision tonight, I could be dead tomorrow.  We have to leave the tomb now as the Sabbath observance begins at sundown.  The women plan to return the morning after the Sabbath to anoint and prepare the body properly.  I am invited to come and stay with the group gathered at the tomb and with some if his closest friends.  I decide to stay – partially because I am just too exhausted to flee. 

As we gather in an upper room trying to console one another, his mother, Mary, begins to tell us her story which we have never heard before.  She tells us about her vision of an angel when she was a young girl.  The angel told her that she would have a baby without ever knowing a man and how her son would save his people from their sins.  She told us about the good carpenter, Joseph, to whom she was betrothed.  When he found out that she was pregnant, he could have put her away, or even worse, reveal her pregnancy to the elders of the synagogue.  But an angel also came to Joseph in a dream and this good and simple man took her as his wife with the commitment to raise her son as his own.

Mary then told us about what happened when they took the infant to the Temple to present him.  There was a holy man who some claimed was a prophet, named Simeon.  He met them in the temple and took the baby in his arms.  He thanked God that he has been allowed to see the consolation of Israel.  He then said to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.  And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  As she repeated these words, we all knew this had just come to pass. 

 So even from the beginning, this life now ended had been filled with miracles and mysterious happenings.  If God is really involved with this man and his ministry, it seems so incomplete and unfinished to have ended this way.  Is there something here that we have missed?  Is there some lesson here we should have learned that will allow us to go on with our lives?  None of us feel like eating and, though tired, we only doze as his good friends reminisce and tell us stories of his ministry, miracles, and private moments of prayer and teaching.  I think most of us are experiencing the oscillating emotions of grief and fear while at the same time, some of the encouragement and hope we knew when the Master would teach us. 

 As the night turns to morning most of us begin to feel that the closeness of this group is a source of comfort for us all.  The stories of Peter, John, Matthew, Andrew, and others continue to echo in our minds and there is a group feeling that this just cannot be the end – God must be doing something that we are unable to see and understand.  A number of people offer prayers for understanding and that God will not leave us in this state of grief and confusion.  We have no specific plan – we will just wait on the Lord and see what a new day will bring.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The 2012 Andy Blog

This day comes around every year.  And every year I feel gut-shot or beat over the head as the memories of that day in 1996 come rolling back into focus.  But something is different about this year.  It struck me that he has been gone almost as long as he was here – 16 years.  No, it does not seem possible when so many of the memories are still fresh . . . but others are starting to dim no matter how hard I try to hold on to them desiring the clarity and comfort of that smiling face, that wonderful laugh, that aroma of his after shave (though most times it was applied without shaving).

A lot of my feelings this morning can be expressed in Fr. Abram Ryan’s poem about his brother who was killed in battle.  The title of the poem is Gone

Gone! And there’s not a gleam of you.
Faces that float into far away,
Gone! And we can only dream of you
Each as you fade like a star away,

Fade as a star in the sky from us,
Vainly we look for you light again;
Hear ye the sound of a sigh from us?
“Come” and our hearts will be bright again.

Come! and gaze on our face once more,
Bring us the smiles of the olden days –
Come! and shine in your place once more;
And, change the dark into golden days –

Gone! Gone! Gone! Joy has fled for us,
Gone into the night of the nevermore,
And darkness rests where you blessed us
A light we will miss for ever more.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Have I Learned the Family Secret, Nellie?

My maternal grandmother was Nellie K. Hussey . . . well, that’s partially correct.  Her tombstone reads: “Nellie K. Hussey; July 25, 1878 – April 2, 1959.”  As far as I knew while she was alive and while my mother’s generation was alive, her name was Nellie.  One time I asked my mother if Nellie was short for some other name.  Her answer was that Nellie was Nellie.  But after further grilling from me, she finally admitted that Nellie was not her given name but it’s the name on the death certificate and every legal document she ever signed, including her marriage license.  I always planned to explore this matter further but, by the time I got around to any serious study of family history, there was no one to ask. 

Several years ago, a friend’s wife, who does genealogical research professionally, volunteered to look into my family’s history.  She did far more work than I ever expected and I learned some very interesting things about my family.  One of the revelations was that Nellie’s given name was Margaret Ellen Kearney.  I love this name.  I think it is beautiful.  So, while one mystery was solved, another raised its head: why would she insist from the time she was a young girl that she be called Nellie?  There is just not a single clue in all the remaining family documents.  So while this is an interesting subject to me, there did not seem to be any answer this side of heaven.

Over the past few months I have been becoming acquainted with Father Abram J. Ryan, the Poet Priest of the South and the person for who my high school was named.  I am working my way through his collected poems while reading David O’Connell’s well researched biography.  The poems are incredible but not modern.  They are much more like Kipling’s in that most them rhythm in the classical sense and they tell a story.  I’m only a third of the way through the poems and my heart has been deeply touched – I’ve shed many a tear.  While reading the biography I came to the section when he first agreed to publishing a book containing his poems (he claims they are not good enough to merit the term poems and refers to them as “my simple verses.”)  While the majority of his poems have religious themes, the ones for which he is the most famous are the ones that lament the “Lost Cause.”  Ryan was born in Illinois and raised in St. Louis but his sympathies were with the South, not in defense of slavery but in defense of state’s rights. His poems were so popular in the south that many poems were required memorization for school children up until the late 1920’s.  When Ryan published his first edition of his collected poems in 1879, he felt that something was needed to “soften” the collected works so that the readers would not think that he was antagonistic against the North because many of his poems defended the Lost Cause.  A friend of his had won a poetry contest conducted by a Mobile newspaper and he asked her if he could include her poem “Reunited” in his collection.  She agreed and it has been part of his collection in every edition since.

My grandmother, Nellie, was surely exposed to Ryan’s poems as she progressed through school.  She finished high school and very soon began to teach in a one-room school house (grades 1 through 8) in Palmyra, Tennessee.  The friend of Ryan’s who wrote “Reunited” was named Margaret Ellen Henry Ruffin, but he knew her by her preferred name: Nellie Henry. 

I was only 9 years old when my grandmother had to be put in a nursing home because of the dementia she was suffering.  But I do remember how much she liked to read and how much she loved poetry.  Did she choose to be called Nellie because of her knowledge of Nellie Henry?  The final answer will have to wait but I certainly think it is possible and interesting.