In most elections, voters don’t pay much attention to the retention elections for judges.
This year, though, the decision on whether to keep three of the five Tennessee Supreme Court justices on the bench is one of the most closely watched races in the state. More than $1 million has already been spent.
The three judges facing retention elections this Thursday—Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark—were in Oak Ridge last Thursday trying to convince local voters to let them keep their jobs for another eight years.
Appointed by former Governor Phil Bredesen, the justices said they’re fighting out-of-state money and inaccurate portrayals of their work. They’re battling back against what they consider an attempt to introduce partisan politics into the courtroom.
“Partisan politics has no role in courts of law,” Wade said.
“We want to preserve fair and impartial courts,” Lee said. “When you put politics in the courtroom, you push the Constitution out.”
The effort to replace the justices has been led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican who has donated $400,000 to the conservative Tennessee Forum through his political action committee. Others advocating for replacing the justices include Americans for Prosperity, which is affiliated with billionaires Charles and David Koch.
“They’re coming from a particular special interest,” Wade said. “Ours is to balance those special interests.”
Similar efforts to replace justices have been tried in other states such as Florida and Iowa. Justices that did not campaign in Iowa lost by significant margins, Wade said.
AFP has been running ads labeling the three judges as liberal. The justices said claims made by those who want to replace them are simply not true. They said the justices are not responsible for the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” or the operations of the attorney general after they appoint him.
“The truth is obviously not an obstacle,” Wade said, referring to the ads run by those who want to replace the justices.
The current attorney general, Bob Cooper, has been criticized for not joining a multi-state lawsuit again the health care law. Wade said the selection process used to appoint the attorney general was set by the Tennessee Constitution long ago. He said Cooper has an excellent academic background, is considered an outstanding attorney, and is the son of Bob Cooper Sr., a former Supreme Court justice.
“Our goal was simply to hire the best attorney possible, regardless of politics,” Wade said.
In his two years as chief justice, no one has complained about the court, said Wade, whose term ends August 30.
Countering the “liberal” label, Wade said all three of the justices on the ballot are from small towns and have small-town values. Others have called the court conservative, and the justices have received a 93 percent rating from the Tennessee Bar Association, which is considered remarkable, Wade said.
“We truly are just faithful to the law,” he said.
The crowd at Thursday’s lunchtime campaign stop at Razzleberry’s Ice Cream Lab and Kitchen featured local lawyers, city and county judges, and former Chief Justice Riley Anderson, who is also a former Oak Ridge attorney.
Wade, who is from Sevier County, said this is his sixth election but the first in which he’s had to campaign in the “traditional fashion.”
“It’s been good for us,” with stops scheduled from Ducktown to Dyersburg, Wade said. “We’re doing it the old-fashioned way.”
Some of those at Thursday’s campaign stop expressed concern about interfering with the state’s current system of checks and balances between the legislative, judicial, and executive branches.
“I think it’s a terrible situation,” Anderson said. “You have out-of-state people trying to prejudice our judicial system. It’s always been non-political.”
If the justices are not retained, Governor Bill Haslam would appoint replacements after a nominating process.
Wade, Lee, and Clark have been recommended for retention by Tennessee’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, a nine-member state board formed to rate judges. Four of those members were appointed by Ramsey, and four more were appointed by House Speaker Beth Harwell. The ninth member was a joint appointment by Ramsey and Harwell.
Anderson pointed out that Ramsey is now against the recommendation of the evaluation commission that he helped appoint.
Former Supreme Court Justice Penny White lost a retention election in 1996 over a death penalty issue.