By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The coordinated campaign of three incumbent Tennessee Supreme Court justices announced Monday that it has raised $600,000 for the effort to keep them on the bench for eight more years.
The effort called Keep Tennessee Courts Fair is made up of the retention committees of Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade, who are on the ballot in August.
“The outpouring of support from Republican and Democrats who recognize the importance of supporting our Tennessee Constitution is just phenomenal,” said campaign manager Brenda Gadd. “They know that we must not minimize our Constitution, and that keeping politics out of our courtroom is crucial.”
While only one justice has ever lost a yes-no retention vote in Tennessee, Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey has been spearheading an effort to persuade voters to reject the three justices, each of whom was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has named two new justices to the high court bench, but they won’t be facing retention votes this year. If even one of the incumbents loses, it would shift the balance of the court that will name the next state attorney general.
“Folks, it’s time that we had a Republican attorney general in the state of Tennessee,” Ramsey, a Blountville auctioneer, said at the state GOP’s annual fundraiser in Nashville last week.
Haslam has said he won’t become involved in the campaign against the incumbents. The governor also has raised concerns that Ramsey’s campaign could “muddy the waters” for a separate constitutional amendment on judicial selection that goes before voters two months after the retention vote.
The proposed amendment would largely mirror the current system in which the governor appoints Supreme Court and appellate court judges, but would also give the Legislature to reject the governor’s choices.
Opponents argue that the yes-no retention votes run afoul of language the state constitution says Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”
The system has withstood three separate challenges on the basis that the retention votes qualify as elections.
“This has been ruled an election – let’s have an election,” Ramsey said in his state GOP speech. “An election is a battle of ideas, one side against the other. I trust the people of Tennessee to make the right decision.”
Ramsey said he’s convinced the current Supreme Court would overturn limits on payouts in medical malpractice and other civil lawsuits that ensure “you’re not going to be punished by some jury that gives you some exorbitant return on the lawsuit.”
He also took issue with the Supreme Court’s actions in the case of Leonard Edward Smith, who was convicted in two northeast Tennessee murders in 1984. Ramsey repeatedly stressed Smith “was convicted by a jury of his peers and given the death penalty.”
The high court in 2011 vacated Smith’s death sentence on the grounds of ineffective counsel and ordered the case to be assigned to a different judge because the original one had previously prosecuted Smith before taking the bench.
Smith later agreed to a deal with prosecutors to serve life in prison in exchange for the death penalty being dropped.