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Court Review: White looks at current campaign from perspective of only Tennessee justice not retained by voters

July 14th, 2014 9:58 am by Hank Hayes

Court Review: White looks at current campaign from perspective of only Tennessee justice not retained by voters

Penny White

KNOXVILLE — Penny White can remember "the day, hour and place" in 1996 when she was told someone was plotting to put her out of a job.

White, a Northeast Tennessee native, had been appointed twice to judgeships by then-Democratic Gov. Ned McWherter — first to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and then to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Now, White has her own place in history: She's the only Tennessee Supreme Court justice not retained by the voters on a statewide ballot.

Back on June 14, 1996, she was at a judicial conference at the Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg when a press spokeswoman told her an organized effort was underway to not retain her.

A political attack was being hatched, and White sourced it within the administration of then-Republican Gov. Don Sundquist. White said she had a hunch that Peaches Simpkins, then deputy to the governor, was the organizer. At that time, Simpkins was married to Irby Simpkins, publisher of the now-defunct Nashville Banner newspaper.

"We understand they've started a just say no campaign," White recalled the press spokeswoman as saying. "None of us had any sense what was happening so we waited at the coffee stand at the Park Vista for (the spokeswoman) to drive to get a Knoxville News-Sentinel (newspaper) and a Nashville Banner (newspaper) and drive it back up there and figure out what the controversy was about."

Today, there's a similar GOP effort to not retain three Tennessee Supreme Court judges — Gary Wade, Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark — being run primarily by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

White, a Sullivan Central High School graduate like Ramsey, was portrayed as being soft on capital punishment — an argument being used today against Wade, Lee and Clark.

In 1996, the Tennessee Supreme Court had upheld the conviction of Richard Odom, who committed a rape and murder of an elderly woman in West Tennessee. The court, however, sent Odom's case back for a new sentencing "in which death was still on the table," White recalled.

"We found (Odom) was entitled to introduce evidence from his psychiatrist at sentencing," White explained. "We did not disturb the guilty verdict ... on sentencing we found error and remanded it for new sentencing. I had never sat on a capital case before as a judge. I had only been on the Supreme Court a year and a half. The outcry was I was antideath penalty."

Odom, White said, has still not been executed.

"That's the irony of it all ... the citizens thought he should be executed and the way to get him executed was to get rid of me and here we are 20 years later," she noted.

White's political opponents created an advocacy group, called the Tennessee Conservative Union, who didn't raise much money to defeat her.

Instead, White pointed out, the group got free coverage from media outlets.

"They would go into courthouses in groups with police officers, victims rights groups and some victims themselves," White said of the group. "They kept calling press conferences and getting coverage ... the (Nashville) Banner kept (the story) alive. ... Sound bites and others stated they were voting against me."

White, however, could not defend herself.

"The whole playing field for judicial elections was different than it is today," she noted. "I was prohibited by judicial code from speaking. That code provision was changed by the Tennessee Supreme Court the following year. They are now well within their rights to speak out."

White said she believes Wade, Lee and Clark — all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen — will be retained.

"I believe in the good common sense of the voters of the state of Tennessee," White stated. "They've had more notice, they've had more opportunity to expose both sides of the issue. I think people know a bully when they see a bully. They see people who are trying to intimidate the courts. I think people will remember we founded this country so we could have independent courts and they want impartial courts."

White said she supports Wade, Lee and Clark, but won't be giving them any advice on how to be retained.

"I'd be the last person they'd want advice from, ... I lost, remember?" White concluded.

White, 58, is a former circuit court judge for Northeast Tennessee's 1st Judicial District. She has taught at law schools in Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. She is the director of the Center for Advocacy and is an Elvin E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee.

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