CLEVELAND, Tenn. — Tennessee’s newest state Supreme Court justice, Sharon Lee, said Thursday she supports the state’s process of selecting appellate and supreme court judges, known as the Tennessee Plan.
Under the plan, the nominee is vetted by a judicial review commission and the appointments are made by the governor. At election time, voters are asked to vote “yes” or “no” whether a state appellate or supreme court judge should be retained.
Replacing the Tennessee Plan, as some state legislators are proposing, brings politics and the judiciary closer together, she told the Sunrise Rotary Club of Cleveland.
Justice Lee’s appointment leaves an appellate court vacancy. Candidates include Sharon Dawn Coppock, Strawberry Plains; John Wesley McClarty, Chattanooga, and Sarah Y. Sheppeard, Knoxville.
Justice Lee described how she rose from being a small-town lawyer in Madisonville, Tenn., to a state Supreme Court justice in less than five years.
She said the Tennessee Plan allowed her to be appointed by Gov. Phil Bredesen. Her October appointment tipped the court’s gender balance to three women and two men. At the ceremony, Justice Martha Craig Daughtry said, “This is not an event I ever expected to see in my lifetime.”
Justice Lee said the Tennessee Plan “gave me a level playing field.”
“I was a lawyer from a small town with a solo practice. I represented real people every day,” she said. “I was chosen based on my experience and my ability and not on who I knew or how much money I have.”
Without the plan, she said, “We will have contested statewide races for five Supreme Court justices and 24 Appellate Court justices,” she said.
She said she will have to raise $1 million to $4 million if she wants to run a statewide campaign when her appointment to fill a vacancy ends.
“You will not have lawyers like me from a small town on the Supreme Court. With those kinds of campaigns, you are going to have politicians,” she said.
Opponents of the Tennessee Plan argue it takes the choice away from voters.
The state House in May voted to change the system but the bill stalled in the Senate along party lines, according to an Associated Press story.
In an opinion article in the Chattanooga Times Free Press in March, Drew Johnson from the Tennessee Center for Policy Research wrote it is the current system that emphasizes politics.
Justice Lee said Thursday that in other states where judges are not vetted by a committee, voters know nothing about the candidates except their names.
Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...