Justices question Lt. Gov. Ramsey’s motives in retention voting

Posted on Tuesday, July 8, 2014 at 11:33 am

Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Gary R. Wade, Janice G. Lee and Cornelia A. Clark met with supporters to voice concerns about retention voting.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Gary R. Wade, Janice G. Lee and Cornelia A. Clark met with supporters to voice concerns about retention voting.

Instead of what appeared to be a slam-dunk for retention, three of Tennessee Supreme Court Justices have found themselves under the gun in the Aug. 7 state primary election.

Justices Cornelia R. “Connie” Clark, Sharon G. Lee and Gary R. Wade were in Morristown Monday evening to meet with supporters and explain their concerns about efforts from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and others from outside the state in their retention elections.

In recent months, the trio has come under fire by Ramsey and other
Republicans who hope to unseat the three, who were appointed to eight-year terms by Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Only one justice has ever lost a yes-no retention vote in Tennessee, and Ramsey’s effort is to persuade voters to increase that number by four.

The justices explained that once the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recommended their retention, they felt their re-election was a sure bet.

Clark explained that Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor. Judges seeking to retain their seats are evaluated by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee — a nine-member panel of lawyers, non-lawyers and state trial court judges.

During the process, Lee explained, the committee reviews survey results from the appellate court judges, trial court judges, court personnel and attorneys who had cases before the various appellate courts.

The surveys asked for an assessment of each of the judge’s performances based on a five-point scale.

Following this review, each of the justices are interviewed before the commission. Their opinions are read.

“It is an extensive process of several months,” Lee said.

Unless the justice receives a majority vote, his or her name doesn’t even go on the ballot.

The commission evaluated Clark, Lee and Wade on the following criteria: integrity, knowledge and understanding of the law, the ability to communicate, preparation and attentiveness, service to the profession and effectiveness in working with other judges and court personnel.

If the committee recommends the justices be retained, their names go on the ballot.

The commission voted eight-to-one for Clark’s retention and unanimously for retention for both Lee and Ward.

Their names were then placed on the August ballot.

“At that point 75 percent (of Tennessee voters) vote yes,” Clark explained. “There’s not much conversation.”

But this time, something was different.

Clark said some people “in the state and out of the state” are running a “vote-no” campaign against the three justices, “not on the basis of opinions, but on the basis of partisan politics.”

“This is new and disconcerting to us,” Wade said.

Lee agreed adding, “We don’t think partisan politics has any place in the courtroom.”

In its 2014 report, the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission recommended the retention of all 22 justices and judges seeking retention in the Aug. 7 election.

But the signs of trouble came earlier this year.

Wade said, in March, the Tennessee Journal reported the Americans for Prosperity and other out-of-state organizations announced their plans to campaign for the removal of the three Democratic-appointed justices from the bench.

Clark said, while they have no way of knowing Ramsey’s motivation for seeking their removal, in televised interviews, he has reportedly said his party now controls two branches of Tennessee government, and it should control the judicial branch, as well.

“It is concerning,” she said.

There is a precedent for the lieutenant governor’s action.

“We know it’s happening in other places,” Clark said.

In Iowa in 2010, similar activities resulted in the unseating of three Supreme Court justices. In Florida in 2012, there was a similar battle, but the three justices were eventually able to retain their seats.

Similar battles are currently going on in North Carolina, she said.

Wade said there is anecdotal evidence a similar campaign was started by the Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor, but the justices in that state were prepared, acted and the campaign backed down.

Some of the criticism aimed at the justices says they are soft on crime and bad for business.

“We apply the law to the facts and that’s the end of the discussion,” Clark said.

“Every case that comes to the Supreme Court is controversial,” Wade said. “They are all highly contested.”

The justice said his concern is that one of two cases have been taken out of hundreds of cases the justices have heard in an attempt to define the court. Instead, he said, he compared the justices to an umpire at a baseball game, “calling the balls and strikes. We don’t make the law, we simply apply it.”

Critics mention two capital cases of the 21 the justices have heard since 2006 which resulted in one new trial and two new death penalty hearing. Eighteen were upheld.

Clark explained that in the judicial system when individuals bring lawsuits against companies, sometimes the facts mean the people win.

“Tennessee is one of the best states for business in the nation,” Lee said.

Ward agreed, saying the Volunteer State was recently named second in the nation as being business friendly.

The three justices agreed on one thing: the importance of the August election.

“This is an historic election,” Wade said. “It is an attack upon the judicial branch of government and the way the judiciary is designed.”

He is pleased by the way the trial and appellate branches of the judicial system have responded. In their bid for retention, the three justices have received support by local bar associations and individuals.

“If someone can come in and take over the judicial process, the rights of our citizens are at risk,” Clark said.

Regardless of how someone decides to vote, the justice emphasized the importance of voting.

“Voting is a very important privilege,” Lee said.

“We’re not very far removed from when people fought, and sometimes died, to get the right to vote,” Clark said, adding that the United States also sends people around the world to help others also have the same privilege of voting.

“I trust the voters of Tennessee,” Lee said. “I really do trust the voters in Tennessee to do the right thing if they have all the information.

“This is a very important election,” she said. “We’re fighting to keep politics out of our courts.”

“I have great faith in the voters of Tennessee,” Ward said. “Our voters need to be patient in going through the ballot. Read it carefully and retain the justices on the Supreme Court.”

-By Denise Williams, Tribune Staff Writer

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