By League Issues: Making Democracy Work
On August 7, Tennesseans will vote in a statewide retention election for appellate judges. Included are three of the five Tennessee Supreme Court justices as well as judges currently sitting on the Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals.
The August 7 retention election represents the last such election under the much-respected Tennessee Plan—the 40-plus year plan for merit selection and retention of appellate judges. The plan was designed to reduce partisanship and outside influences in electing and retaining our appellate judges. The final phase of the plan—merit retention—expired June 30, 2014.
This year’s retention election is particularly important. Fair and impartial court supporters in our state—including Governor Haslam—are concerned about media reports that the three Supreme Court justices seeking retention in Tennessee might become the targets of heavily financed campaigns organized by groups outside the state. There have been reports of such campaigns targeting high court justices in several other states across our nation.
What does merit retention mean?
Merit retention means retaining the appellate judges based on their job performance. The basis of determining merit is whether the judge has been meeting his or her responsibility to uphold and apply the law fairly and impartially, and therefore, should be retained. Retention is not related to agreement with every judicial decision or opinion issued by the judge. Fair and impartial judges do not decide cases based on popular opinion or public sentiment. Judges are governed by the law and are required to decide cases based upon fair and impartial application of the law. Merit retention is designed to evaluate and retain judges based strictly upon their judicial performance. Merit-based selection and retention seeks to remove partisan politics and special interests from the judicial election process.
How can voters know if a judge has been doing his or her job effectively enough to be retained?
Voters should read the full 2014 performance evaluation reports and view the individual “retain” recommendations for the appellate judges seeking retention. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission (JPEC) reports are available at tsc.state.tn.us under the pull down “Boards and Commissions.”
Why are LWVTN and other fair and impartial court advocates in our state concerned about politics and partisanship in this election?
Tennessee media has been widely reporting about partisan campaigning and political attacks on the judiciary. In particular, a campaign has been launched to oust the three sitting Tennessee Supreme court Justices—Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Sharon Lee, and Justice Cornelia Clark.
What messages are being used by politicians to distort the issues?
The campaign to unseat the three high court justices has raised allegations that the justices are “soft on crime” and has criticized the Supreme Court for appointing the current state attorney. Since the attorney general is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the replacement of the three justices will probably impact the appointment of the next attorney general.
Supporters of fair and impartial courts believe such partisan efforts to unseat high court justices are detrimental to our democracy. The use of negative campaign ads to remove qualified judges from state service threaten to turn our judiciary into another partisan, politicized branch of government—contrary to the ideals of the nation’s founders.
Please visit the lwvtn.org website for more information and links to pertinent documents.
Mary Ann Reeves
League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge