Tennessee Supreme Court Vote Is A Lesson In Bipartisanship

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Elections in Tennessee last week returned three of the highest ranking state judges to the bench for another eight-year term.  Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Connie Clark, and Justice Sharon Lee each captured more than 55 percent of the vote in this off-year election cycle. The support for the three justices was strong across the state, and perhaps surprising in these days of highly partisan politics, it was unequivocally bipartisan.  

Republican and Democratic lawyers, prosecutors, retired judges, and community-minded citizens banded together to convey the message that "Justice is not for sale in Tennessee."  In what has become a decidedly red state in the last 20 years, Tennessee judicial supporters beat back opposition from a vocal minority headed by Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, his loyal followers, and well financed out-of-state interests. 

In the past it was unusual for state court judges to come under attack.  It has happened only once before--in 1996-- in Tennessee when Justice Penny White was voted off the bench at a time when judicial canons forbade her to respond to her detractors. Times have changed. 

Currently the decision by narrowly defined political groups to go after incumbent judges has become more common. In Iowa three justices lost their seats in 2010 after ruling on the legality of same sex marriages.  This year alone there are ballot challenges to judges underway in Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.  But the victory of the Supreme Court justices in Tennessee should be seen for what it is and not misunderstood in the political gamesmanship of blue vs. red state politics. A rare moment of bipartisan cooperation produced this election result. 

Justices Wade, Clark, and Lee were each appointed by Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen and earlier this year approved by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, whose members were selected by the GOP legislative leadership, before having their name placed on the August ballot for retention or replacement. 

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Republican, instigated the removal campaign. He claimed that the justices are anti-business, soft on crime, and responsible for appointment of a state attorney general of whom Ramsey is critical, and most recently his criticism is that the justices have supported Obamacare.  

The effort to unseat the justices by the use of false information is what brought together support across the state. The response to the unfairness of Ramsey's attacks was immediate, wide, and bipartisan.  Former U.S. Attorney Edward M. Yarbrough, appointed by President George W. Bush, spoke out on behalf of the justices.  Retired Justice William C. Koch, Republican, former cabinet member of Gov. Lamar Alexander Administration, denounced the unfairness of the campaign to unseat the justices. Former Appeals Court Judge Lew Conner, Republican and friend of Senator Lamar Alexander, added his voice in support of the justices. Former Chief Justice Frank Drowota, Democrat, and  Former Chief Justice William M. “Mickey” Barker, Republican, each spoke passionately and convincingly on the issues. "Opponents are trying to turn the Court, a non-political branch of government, into one that rules in favor of their political agenda instead of the law and facts of cases as required by our Constitution and state law.  I am a Republican, but politics has no place in a courtroom.  Let’s keep it that way," said Justice Barker from Chattanooga. 

Editorial boards across the state wrote to set the record straight prior to the vote last week. In Nashville,  the Tennessean stated, “Ramsey also is counting on most voters not looking beyond the campaign’s deceptive ads, which, for example, falsely accuse Wade, Clark, and Lee of being soft on crime. In most states, justices who support the death penalty in 90 percent of cases before them would be called just the opposite. In fact, based on these justices’ decision-making on the bench, they should be retained. Their rulings exhibit none of the “liberal activism” that Ramsey and his cronies complain of.  But that does not make the retention process any cleaner.” 

In Knoxville, the News-Sentinel said, "Wade, Clark, and Lee have been solid justices whose decisions typically are well-reasoned applications of the law to the particulars cases at hand. The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, whose members were selected by the GOP legislative leadership, recommended the three for retention."

Additionally, 14 current and retired prosecutors from across the state endorsed the justices, refuting the myth that the Supreme Court is “soft on crime.” This bipartisan group of prosecutors represents diverse counties across the state. Heading this group was District Attorney General Tom P. Thompson, Jr.  Thompson has served 37 years and is believed to be America’s longest-serving district attorney.  

Similarly, the Tennessee State Fraternal Order of Police, a bipartisan organization representing 10,000 law enforcement officers, supported the retention of the justices.  

"Partisan politics should not enter the court system. To allow such undermines the rule of law so vital to an orderly and civil society . . .,” said Chairman Lloyd Daugherty of The Tennessee Conservative Union.  

The collective voice of these Tennesseans came together in August to protect judicial independence.  To be sure, this group almost certainly disagrees with the president's policies, the direction of Congress, and legislation in Nashville. It is unlikely that they would work together on many other  measures. But when it comes to the courts and the independence of the judiciary, the message is clear. When faced with an adversary who promotes a campaign based on unfair and false information, Tennesseans will act. Last Thursday's result should be understood as an act of civil obedience. Men and women who value the independence of the state's highest court have acted together to repel a campaign of misinformation.  They fought it off with facts.  The lesson learned is this: on a narrowly defined issue, citizens can find common ground with their political opponents and will do what is in the best interest of Tennessee. 

Lee Davis 


Being Proactive With Parkinson's Disease

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease after Alzheimer’s and is the 14th leading cause of death in the United States. It affects an estimated one million Americans and four to six million worldwide,  There is no cure for Parkinson’s, and 60,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States alone. Source: National Parkinson’s Foundation  ... (click for more)

Stop Yet Another Grocery Store And Gas Station On Signal Mountain Road

For those of you who enjoy the frisbee park on Signal Mountain Road (Hwy 127) and the beautiful view of trees and natural landscape at the foot of Signal Mountain, it might be time to kiss that beautiful scenery goodbye.  The Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission will be voting May 9 on whether to re-zone four tracts of land directly across from the frisbee ... (click for more)

Dewayne Ray Burns Wanted After Firing Shots At Fort Oglethorpe Police Officers

Dewayne Ray Burns is wanted after police in North Georgia were led on a chase, and he fired shots at officers. Burns fired shots in their direction late Thursday night. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Fort Oglethorpe Police Department are investigating the incident. According to park rangers on the scene, the Burns ran away, while firing shots in the direction ... (click for more)

5 Considered For Cleveland City Manager Position

Five names were selected  Friday  by a citizens advisory committee to send to the Cleveland City Council for consideration as the next Cleveland city manager. The five are Angie Carrier, Joe Fivas, Mark Reeter, Seth Sumner and Julie Underwood. The list is being sent in alphabetical order so no one has an advantage when the city council considers the candidates. ... (click for more)

Shoulders, Hester Lead CSAS Past Lookout Valley, 10-7

Most of the regular-season district softball games are in the book and teams are trying to sharpen their skills as they prepare for the post-season in hopes of landing in Murfreesboro for the season-ending TSSAA state tournament the week before Memorial Day. Such is the case for the Red Bank Lionettes, who are hosting the 2016 Red Bank Invitational this weekend at the Red Bank ... (click for more)

McMasters Makes Tough Call To Play Volleyball At Lee

Grace Baptist Academy two-sport standout Claire McMasters envisioned playing basketball and volleyball at a small college after her career ended with the Lady Golden Eagles. So, she “looked at” Covenant College and Maryville College as two schools where she thought that would be possible to extend her two-sport status. McMasters’ recruiting shifted quickly once Lee University ... (click for more)