TN Supremes election gets attention of national groups

A national Republican organization joined in attacking three state Supreme Court justices as “left wing” and “liberal” Monday while the spokeswoman another Washington group disputed application of similar labels to its efforts on behalf of non-partisan judicial elections.

Justices Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade, meanwhile, have filed financial disclosures reporting they collectively had $671,131 campaign cash on hand as of July 1 to spend defending themselves prior to the Aug. 7 retention election. They are already running a TV ad statewide that began after the July 1 disclosure and, according to the group Justice at Stake, the initial purchase for air time last week was $107,610.

The Republican State Leadership Committee on Monday joined in a direct mail advertising attack on three justices with a mailer bearing the headline, “Bench our liberal Supreme Court justices.” It’s strikingly similar in theme to a mailer sent last week by Tennessee Forum and has non-flattering pictures of the three judges with the word ‘Replace’ stamped over their likenesses.

Voters will decide Aug. 7 whether the three – along with other appellate court judges — get new terms by voting to “retain” or “replace” each of them. All three were initially appointed to the state’s highest court by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. If one or more is rejected by voters, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would appoint replacements.

“Tennessee trial lawyers have packed our Supreme Court with justices like Clark, Lee and Wade, who are too liberal and do not share our Tennessee values,” says the RSLC mailer. “When 28 states fought Obamacare, Tennessee sided with Obama. Why? The left-wing Supreme Court appointed a liberal Democrat to be our attorney general and he refused to join the lawsuit against Obamacare, hurting our families and businesses.”

Carol Andrews, spokeswoman for the justices’ campaign, said the mailer was another example of “murky money” from out-of-state entering the picture. Wade, in a meeting with the News Sentinel editorial board Monday, had this comment on the push to reject the justices:

” I’m personally not taking this as a personal attack against me or the other justices. I view this as a challenge to the entire bench and bar and third branch of government.”

RSLC just renewed its registration as a campaign committee in Tennessee last week. Jill Bader, spokeswoman for the group, declined to give details on how much money the RSLC plans to spend against the three justices, who were first appointed to the bench by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.

“We don’t give away our playbook with an amount, but we plan to make a significant investment,” Bader said in an email.

Earlier this year, RSLC spent $640,000 opposing the reelection of a North Carolina Democratic Supreme Court justice. The group has launched a “Judicial Fairness Initiative” to push for ouster of Democratic state Supreme Court judges around the nation and, in Tennessee, has worked with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a leading advocate of efforts to replace Clark, Lee and Wade.

The RSLC mailer is remarkably similar in wording to a direct mail attack on the three justices sent last week by Tennessee Forum, which reported collecting about $19,000 on its July 1 disclosure with no spending. The mailer went out after July 1, meaning the mailer’s cost need not be disclosed until July 31 – and a group spokeswoman declined to give a figure until required by law.

“I thought the similarities (between the two mailers) were interesting as well, but, no, we’re not working together. The facts are the facts!,” said Susan Hart, representing Tennessee Forum.

In a document sent to media explaining assertions of the justices’ liberal leanings, Tennessee Forum declares: “Left-wing billionaire political activist George Soros funds Justice at Stake, a Washington D.C. organization working in tandem with the judges’ campaign.”

A similar claim is made by Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability, which has sent out news releases to media attacking the justices as “liberal” and indicated it plans further “educational” efforts in that regard.

Laurie Kinney, communications director for Justice at Stake, said in an interview Monday that the contention is inaccurate. Justice at Stake has donors on both sides of the political aisle, she said, and is completely non-partisan, devoted to “raising awareness about money in judicial politics” and monitoring a national trend toward voting for judges on that basis.

The group’s national chair is retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, an appointee or Republican President Ronald Reagan, and its board of directors includes former Republican state Supreme Court judges, she said. The group does not support election or rejection of any judge, Kinney said, but rather decries partisanship and financial influence in picking judges.

Justice at Stake’s central message does, however, align with that of the Supreme Court justices campaign: Keep politics out of judicial selection. The TV ad now being run by the justices’ campaigns has that as a theme, along with the assertion that the judges have backed 2nd amendment rights and upheld the death penalty in 90 percent of the capital punishment cases coming before them.

As a nonprofit group, Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability does not have to disclose its donors – so long as it does not explicitly advocate defeat of the justices and only “educates” voters on its opinions about them. It’s spending is also subject to only limited reporting. Kinney said such “dark money” groups – allowed under current state and federal laws — are a concern that runs contrary to Justice at Stake’s support for “openness and transparency” in politics.

The justices’ financial disclosures show they collectively spent about $100,000 in the past three months – one expenditure for the “voter contact” list from the state Democratic party. Tennessee Forum and RSLC are presumably targeting Republican-oriented voters in their direct mail efforts, though neither would acknowledge that and no disclosures of their spending – all coming after July 1 — have been filed.

Wade had the most money on hand, $334,045, according to the reports. His contributors included four members of the Knoxville Haslam family – James Haslam II, his son James “Jimmy” Haslam III and both their wives. All four Haslam family members gave $2,000 each to Wade.

Gov. Bill Haslam, another son of James “Jim” Haslam and brother of “Jimmy” Haslam, has declined to take a position on whether the justices should be reelection, though he says he has a “great working relationship” with all three.

Lee had a balance of $161,049 in her campaign account; Clark had $176,036. The justices are sharing campaign expenses through an umbrella group called Keep Tennessee Courts Fair. The idea, according to Andrews and the justices, is to split expenditures equally among the three judges.

In general, the three justices report donations from many of the same people, lawyers and judges prominent among them, but there are some who, like the Haslams, donated to one justice but not the others.

For example, former University of Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer and Deborah DiPietro, wife of UT President Joe DiPietro, donated to Wade but not the other justices. Similarly, Republican state Rep. Jimmy Matlock of Lenoir City and Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero contributed to Lee’s campaign, but not to the others.