With early voting in less than two weeks and general election ballots to be cast on Aug. 7, a battle over three current Tennessee Supreme Court justices' jobs has reached Chattanooga after months of back-and-forth in Nashville.
Local attorneys led by Lee Davis have been meeting with influential local leaders to swing support to keep the three justices up for retention votes this year as Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and his backers have sought to push the justices out.
Davis has criticized what he calls a "very vocal minority" of conservatives backing Ramsey in efforts to oust justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee, all appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
For the past few months Ramsey and supporters have reached out to local media, held hearings and openly criticized the justices, calling for their ouster. The three justices have not taken the attack silently and have been campaigning across the state. Supporters have raised at least $600,000 for what would otherwise be a quiet, low-dollar judicial retention vote.
"What we try to do is get out to the civic-minded voters what the truthful record of these justices is, then the vote will take care of itself," Davis said.
Ramsey and supporters have called the justices "liberal" and "anti-business." Others have lodged ethical complaints against the justices leading up to this retention vote.
State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has focused on Wade for removal after what he termed "hypocritical" conduct revealed in a recent legislative hearing.
Gardenhire said that the hearing showed Wade had conducted a "phone campaign" on behalf of other appellate judges who were up for retention when ethical rules prohibit such communication.
Wade said in a recent interview that he spoke well of colleagues whose work he reviews as a justice and that accusations of any ethical violations are unfounded.
Davis points to bipartisan efforts to support the justices.
Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice William M. "Mickey" Barker, a local supporter, recently issued his own statement:
"Although I am a Republican, there is no place for partisan politics in our Courts," he wrote. "I know and have served with Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee, and Chief Justice Gary Wade. All of them have solid records of upholding our constitution, protecting personal liberties, and enforcing the law fairly and impartially. I recommend that they each be retained in office."
Chattanooga Tea Party leader Mark West said this past week that efforts have begun by local conservatives against the justices.
"You've got some guys that need to go," West said. "We're strongly in support of replacing these justices."
West cited rulings on death penalty cases and medical malpractice caps specifically as decisions he thought were out of step with Tennesseans' values.
But it is exactly the concern over popular opinion within judicial campaigns that concerns some of the justices' supporters.
"Tennessee needs judges who are independent, objective and not beholden to anybody. For partisan politics to be injected into selection of appellate judges would be very sad," said local attorney T. Maxfield Bahner. "We all want judges who are objective and independent. Justice wears no party label. Party affiliation is irrelevant to the decisions appellate judges must make."
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...