Retention message: Keep politics out of courtroom

Hank Hayes • Aug 20, 2014 at 11:16 PM

KINGSPORT — Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday most Tennesseans feel like their appellate court system is working well, and that may be why they decided to retain three state Supreme Court justices earlier this month after a contentious political campaign.

Chief Justice Gary Wade, and Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark — all Democratic appointees of former Gov. Phil Bredesen — each garnered nearly a half million votes to be retained over the wishes of advocacy groups who wanted them replaced.

Those advocacy groups, backed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, attempted to portray the justices as liberals who were soft on crime and bad for business.

The justices traveled the state promising voters they would be true to the law and state constitution.

Both sides raised and spent more than a million dollars on TV ads and direct mail pieces to get their message out.

"I think the justices did a good job of making their case. Those (retention/replacement elections) are unusual elections. We haven't had one like that in a while. ... I think the justices did a good job saying what they had done and haven't done," Haslam, a Republican, said after an investiture ceremony Wednesday placing Robert Montgomery Jr. as a judge on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

Both Wade and Lee attended the ceremony in Kingsport's Renaissance Center and were asked why Tennesseans favored retention.

"First and foremost, I believe Tennesseans believe in the courts and the judges in their area, and that we had a presumptive favorability with the people of Tennessee," said Wade, who will be chief justice until the end of this month. "I also think that people really preferred to reject the notion of partisan politics in the courtroom. I think that was something repeated during the course of the campaign. It was very appealing to people. Most importantly, it's true that judges disregard the notion of Republican or Democrat when it comes to decision making in the law. ... We're dedicated to the proposition that the rule of law prevails over everything else."

Lee, who will become chief justice on Sept. 1, added: "I think (voters) went for retention because they believe in fair and impartial courts and they wanted to keep partisan politics out of our judiciary."

Ramsey, R-Blountville, promised the state Supreme Court justices his full support on "anything they need" during the investiture ceremony.

"Obviously their message won that we don't need politics in the courtroom, although we all know there is politics in the courtroom," Ramsey reflected. "It was a spirited campaign and both sides had a message out. People chose the other side. I don't have any problem with that whatsoever."

Haslam said the next big step for Tennessee's judicial selection process is "Amendment 2" on the November ballot calling for a yes or no vote on whether Supreme Court and intermediate appellate court judges should be appointed by the governor, confirmed by the legislature and then be elected in a subsequent retention election.

"I'm a very strong advocate of our appellate level justices to having merit selection of those and then retention elections," Haslam said. "It is a change for the (Tennessee) constitution to be clear that what we're doing now is the right way to do it."

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