If you want to know what’s different about this year’s judicial retention election, just look at the numbers. The last time Chief Justice Gary Wade ran to keep his seat on the state’s highest court, he reported exactly zero donors giving zero dollars. The same is true for Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee. This time around, the three judges have collectively raised more than a million dollars to fight off Republican efforts to unseat them.
The issue at play is simple politics. In Tennessee, the governor fills empty seats on appellate benches. From that point on, voters decide if the judges will be allowed to keep their seats.
All three justices currently up for reelection were appointed by a Democratic governor. If they are ousted, a Republican governor will get to choose their replacements. However, the lineup of groups and individuals backing the efforts to oust or retain the justices isn’t quite so straightforward.
For instance, take a look at four of the most powerful Republicans in the state. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey initiated the campaign against the justices and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick agrees.
But House Speaker Beth Harwell, also a member of the GOP, has chosen to remain silent. Republican Governor Bill Haslam has not officially picked a side, but he did express concern that the campaign to oust the three judges could make it more difficult to pass a constitutional amendment about judicial selection. What’s more, Haslam’s family members (father James, brother Jimmy, sister Ann and their spouses) made substantial donations to the judges’ reelection campaigns.
So who else is involved and where do they stand? Take a look:
AGAINST RETAINING THE JUSTICES
The group, which bills itself as an “independent political issues organization,” was formed in 2000 to help George W. Bush defeat Al Gore in Tennessee. The forum has taken the lead in publicizing efforts to oust the three justices. The group paid for television ads criticizing the judges and released a video online that instructs voters in how to vote against retention. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee, RAAMPAC, donated $425,000 to the forum.
Americans for Prosperity
A national political advocacy group focused on conservative and libertarian issues, founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.
State Government Leadership Foundation
A national group promoting conservative causes in each state.
Republican State Leadership Committee
One of the largest national organizations devoted to electing Republicans to state-level offices.
Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability
TNJA was formed last year to fight a proposed amendment to the state constitution tweaking the method used to appoint Supreme Court justices.
Tennessee Voices for Victims
This organization criticizes the justices for rulings limiting certain rights of crime victims, such as narrowing the use of statements from victims in the sentencing phase of a trial.
Tennessee Right to Life
Explaining its endorsement of the effort to oust the justices, the pro-life organization cited a proposed amendment clarifying that abortion is not a protected right in Tennessee:
Tennessee Right to Life is leading the critical campaign to win passage of Amendment 1 in the November election. It is important to note, however, that Amendment 1 is only necessary because of the judicial arrogance of the Tennessee Supreme Court. In the landmark case of Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee v. Sundquist, members of the state Supreme Court imagined themselves entitled to amend our Tennessee Constitution on the matter of abortion without the consent of Tennessee’s people.
SIDING WITH THE JUSTICES
Keep Tennessee Courts Fair
This group was organized specifically to support the judge’s retention election efforts and, much like the Tennessee Forum does for the other side, KTCF is the leader in publicizing the cause of retaining the sitting judges. The organization is behind several television ads supporting the justices and calling the campaign against them an unfair effort backed by special interests.
Tennesseans for Fair Courts
A website devoted to the judges in this retention election, which largely works to promote their cause via a blog and social media.
Tennessee Conservative Union
The TCU was active in the only successful effort to unseat a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court , former Justice Penny White. But this time around, the group has spoken in support of the sitting justices.
While we realize that this position is different from our dear friend Ron Ramsey (who will be inducted into the TCU Conservative Hall of Fame) and Lt. Governor Ramsey has accomplished an amazing amount for conservatives, we also recognize that when one party holds all the power, whether it is Republican or Democrat, problems will arise.
Fraternal Order of Police
District Attorneys for 32 counties, plus several retired DAs and US District Attorneys
Former Chief Justices Frank Drowota and Mickey Barker, retiring Justice William Koch, and former Appeals Court Judge Lew Conner, former Federal Judge Robert Echols
Bar Associations of Nashville, Bledsoe County, Bristol, Dekalb County, Hamblen County, Kingsport, McMinn County, Monroe County, Montgomery County, Putnam County, Sevier County, Tipton County, Washington County, White County
Upper Cumberland Young Lawyers Association
East Tennessee Lawyer’s Association for Women
American Board of Trial Advocates, Tennessee Chapter
The Tennessee Bar Association did not pick a side, but did poll its members, finding that “9 out of 10 attorneys” want to retain all three justices. The TBA also gave Chief Justice Gary Wade an award in June for “outstanding judicial service.”
All three justices were recommended for retention by state’s Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.
The justices’ campaign donors are largely involved in the court system (attorneys, fellow judges, etc.) and many are frequent contributors to Democrats. However, the judges have also drawn financial support from businesses and Republicans. For example, Patricia Bible of Morristown is one of the biggest donors listed on Gary Wade’s last campaign disclosure filing. Bible is CEO of a large restaurant supply company in Morristown with a history of political donations to the Tennessee Republican party and GOP office-holders Phil Roe, Bob Corker and Ron Ramsey.