Chief Justice says ‘quality work,’ not politics, motivated defense of rejected judges

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade says he does not believe politics was involved in the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission’s tentative recommendation against new terms for three appellate court judges though he still disagrees with the recommendation.

Wade and Charles D. Susano Jr. of Knoxville, presiding judge of the Court of Appeals, were both named to their posts by Democratic governors while members of the commission are appointed by the speakers of the House and Senate, now both Republicans.

As previously reported, Wade has said all three judges receiving negative recommendations have done “quality work” and deserve new terms, though one of them — Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Jerry Smith, who pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in Knoxville last year — is expected to retire rather than seek re-election next year. Susano limited his call for reconsideration of the negative recommendations to Court of Appeals Judge Andy Bennett, who he has worked with extensively.

The third judge recently receiving a tentative negative recommendation is Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Camille McMullen of Memphis, the only black woman among the state’s 29 appellate court judges.

Since their comments were reported, Wade said he and Susano have both become aware of complaints they were “injecting politics” into the situation and, after a luncheon discussion, want to make clear that is not the case.

“Neither Charlie nor I believe this is a partisan issue,” he said. “We know there was some rational basis for each on of the decisions they (members of the commission) made… I have never seen a commission more prepared than this one was for making its recommendations… They have done a very difficult job in a relatively short period of time.”

Wade said he and Susano, both known as Democrats and both receiving positive recommendations, were merely voicing their personal opinions based on personal knowledge of the judges involved. He said that Bennett and McMullen both scored well in surveys of fellow judges, lawyers and staff — just not as well as other judges in the evaluation.

“It’s like every kid in the class finishing in the top 10 percent on a (national) test,” he said.

Hypocrisy Charged: Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said in an email that he feels Wade and Susano are guilty of “hypocrisy” beyond politics because they are effectively criticizing the current judicial selection system despite otherwise supporting it.

Bell is among legislators who contend the current system violates the state constitution by allowing appointment of the state’s top judges without a contested election.

“The hypocrisy of the chief justice (Wade) amazes me,” Bell said. “He defends the current system of choosing judges even though a 4th grader knows what “elect” means. He talks about the fear of putting politics in the process of choosing judges if we do what the constitution says. And yet when the system he defends works and gives negative recommendations to three judges, he and Jjudge Susano try to put pressure on the Evaluation Commission members to change their vote.

“ I guess they think it’s OK for appointed judges to be involved in the political process on how we choose judges but not OK for the citizens of Tennessee.”

Bell said that Wade’s comments did not change his perception of the situation, likening the chief justice to “old lawyers’ tactics in the courtroom” of “just saying something to get it out of the way” in response to an opposing comment.

Denouncing Senate Move: Tennessee’s two U.S. senators, Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, have joined other Republicans in denouncing the Senate’s Democratic majority’s vote last week to block filibusters against presidential appointments by changing Senate procedural rules.

Corker said the Democrats used “brute, raw force to get what they want.” Similarly, Alexander said in a news release that the vote is “another raw exercise of partisan political power to say we can do whatever we want to do.”