State Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade, who has announced plans to resign from Tennessee’s highest court in September, said Sunday he is considering an offer to become dean of the John J. Duncan Jr. School of Law at Lincoln Memorial University.
In a telephone interview Sunday, Wade said his final decision on the offer is due today, and he indicated a strong inclination to accept it.
Wade also said he had planned to retire as a Supreme Court justice last year, but decided to seek re-election to a new eight-year term after Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and others announced they would oppose a new term for him and two other Supreme Court justices appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
“Last year’s election was all about principle,” Wade said. “I’m a mountain boy, and we don’t back down from a challenge.”
The principle of a judiciary elected outside of partisan politics was upheld, he said, and he feels that was the right decision and declared he much appreciates the way the state’s legal community of lawyers and judges rallied behind that principle on a bipartisan basis.
Wade said he was unaware that his successor, who will be appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, will apparently serve the remainder of Wade’s seven-year term without any vote by Tennesseans — as reported earlier by the News Sentinel and the Commercial Appeal — in accord with a state constitutional amendment approved in November by the state’s voters.
Thus, he said, that was not a factor in his decision to retire just one year after his re-election to a new eight-year term. Rather, Wade said, it was a matter of following through, at age 67, with the intention he had earlier last year as an acknowledgment that “there just comes a time” for change in one’s personal life as well as in holding a public office position.
“I just don’t have as much energy as I used to have,” he said, noting that he is now the oldest person serving on the appeals court and the path should be open to younger people, just as was open to him when first appointed a judge of the state Court of Criminal Appeals in 1987 by then-Gov. Ned McWherter, a Democrat.
A native of Sevier County, historically rated as the most staunchly Republican county in Tennessee, Wade has long professed general bipartisanship. Wade had previously served as mayor of Sevierville. He was first appointed to the Supreme Court by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2006 and subsequently served two years as chief justice.
Ramsey, who provided most of the money, used a campaign last year to try to defeat Wade and two other Supreme Court justices appointed by Bredesen as “liberal Democrats,” issued a statement saying he regards Wade as “my good friend and a formidable opponent” and declaring he looks forward to “this historic opportunity to give Tennessee its first ever Republican Supreme Court majority.”
The Supreme Court currently has three of its five members — Wade and Justices Sharon Lee and Connie Clark — identified as Democrats because they were appointed by Bredesen. All three were re-elected to new eight-year terms last year in a “retention election” — wherein voters simply decided yes or no on a new term — with Wade getting the biggest majority of the three in the August judicial election.
Wade said that he has enjoyed good relationships with the state Legislature — “with one exception” — and believes that will continue for future leaders of the judicial branch of government.
In November, Tennessee voters also approved “amendment 2” to Tennessee’s constitution, revising the system for selecting judges to the state’s appeals courts. The amendment says that the governor will fill any vacancy occurring on the Supreme Court or other appeals courts by appointment of a new judge to “a full term” — apparently, in Wade’s case, meaning his successor will be chosen by Haslam to serve all seven years of the justice’s remaining term without any voting by citizens in general.
Haslam strongly advocated passage of the constitutional amendment but took no position on Ramsey’s effort to unseat the Democratic Supreme Court justices last year. The governor and Wade have been on friendly terms for years and Haslam, in his only public comment so far on Wade’s resignation, declared “Tennessee will miss his service on the Supreme Court, and I am grateful for his good work.”
Amendment 2, as approved by voters, also declares that the Legislature can confirm or reject a governor’s appointees to appeals courts. But legislation to set the procedures for confirmation or rejection by the General Assembly led a House-Senate dispute during the final days of the 2015 legislative session with the upshot being no rules for legislative confirmation are in place.
Under the constitutional amendment, if the Legislature fails to act on a governor’s appointment within 60 days while the Legislature is in session, the nominee is considered approved. Those involved in the House-Senate dispute over confirmation procedures — notably including state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville — have said they hope to resolve disagreements in the 2016 legislative session, which begins in January.
In general, the disagreement involves whether the House and Senate vote together or separately on confirmation. Dunn contends that having the chambers vote separately, rather than in a joint meeting together, would allow senators to effectively approve — or kill — a nomination without effective House input.
Should Wade become the LMU Duncan School of Law’s leader, he will be the second state Supreme Court justice to recently leave the bench for legal academia. Former Justice William Koch — initially appointed to an appeals court seat by former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander, then elevated to the Supreme Court by Bredesen — last year decided not to seek re-election to a new term and instead became dean of the Nashville School of Law.
The Duncan School of Law was established in 2009. According to its website, Matthew Lyon, a professor at the Knoxville-based school, is serving currently as acting dean during a search for someone to take the job on a permanent basis.
The website reads: “In just a few years, LMU Law has already begun making a positive impact wholly disproportionate to our size. We have established a rapport with members of the bench, the bar and the wider community. Our faculty members are experts in their fields who also participate in public service initiatives with local schools, clinics, social agencies, and other organizations.”