Three Tennessee Justices Overcome Push To Oust Them

Justices Sharon Lee and Connie Clark address supporters after voters elected to retain them for eight more years. Credit: Bobby Allyn

Justices Sharon Lee and Connie Clark address supporters after voters elected to retain them for eight more years. Credit: Bobby Allyn

The state’s three contested Democratic Supreme Court Justices will serve for another eight years. The victory comes after they collectively spent more than $1 million to defend their seats against an infusion of cash from outside groups.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s political action committee flooded nearly half-a-million dollars into attempting to unseat the justices. And several other outside groups spent untold sums on the effort. It was aimed at replacing the judges with Republican ones, who, Ramsey argued, would better represent the values of the state, specifically by replacing state Attorney General Bob Cooper, a Democrat, with a Republican.

At a gathering of supporters at a sports bar near West End Avenue in Nashville, Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee said Ramsey’s campaign to jettison her and two other justices, Gary Wade and Connie Clark, forced them to counter the attacks. The whole fight, she said, makes the public think that money can sway judges.

“And it absolutely does not,” Lee said. “But that’s the sort of myth that might be hard to dispel. And I think that’s the danger of what we just faced.”

Typically, very little money is spent on appeals judge races — and voters usually pay them scant attention. This time, however, with money flowing and TV attack ads airing, the question of whether to “retain” or “replace” the three judges morphed into a spectacular bout.

Justice Connie Clark, who joined Lee at the election-watch party, said if the Supreme Court members come under fire again, they will continue to raise defensive money.

“But hopefully this means that people will understand that the system we have is a good system, and we don’t need partisan political attacks or lots of money.”

The full-throated defense represented the first time in decades that members of the high court had to actively campaign to protect their seats.

And the campaign comes as other high courts in states around the country prepare for possible political attacks on incumbent judges.

In a statement after the vote, Ramsey said more Tennesseans are now aware of the role they have in deciding who sits on the state Supreme Court. That, he said, is the true victory.

Reacting after the vote, the conservative group Tennessee Forum put out a statement saying, “With a system that doesn’t allow for an opposing candidate, there was nothing for like-minded conservatives to lose today. We hope the Justices take this unprecedented replace vote as a wake up call and choose a new attorney general who more closely reflects the values of Tennesseans moving forward.”

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