The public discourse about whether to retain or replace members of the Tennessee Supreme Court should be conducted based upon complete facts. A recent column by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, (“It is an election, isn’t it?” Free Press, May 13) gives an incomplete story.
In most elections, candidates answer for themselves, but judges and judicial elections are different. Judges are bound by the very code of ethics they follow, which makes them good, fair judges. They can’t comment on cases, out of concern that they would have to remove themselves from a future case due to having prejudged a matter or giving the perception that they lack impartiality.
Sen. Bell is a good friend of the bar and our justice system, but the jabs he and others have directed at the Supreme Court in recent weeks are not just mischaracterizations of actions from the Supreme Court, they’re also wrong. The Tennessee Bar Association is obligated to stand up for the fair and impartial administration of justice, and cannot let these misstatements go unanswered. Yes, let the voters decide whether the members of our Supreme Court should be retained or replaced — which makes it critical that those voters are getting the whole story.
Sen. Bell offers the case of Arthur Copeland. Copeland was convicted of a horrible crime in 2000. Seven years ago, a unanimous Supreme Court sent Copeland’s case back to the trial court because the jury was not allowed to hear about the science showing that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable, and the court said that wasn’t fair. When the trial court took up the case again, local prosecutors decided to let Copeland plead guilty to a lesser charge. During this time, Copeland was never let out of jail. According to his new plea, Copeland was sentenced to 14 years in jail. He had already served 11, so he spent three more years in jail and was released in 2011.
The truth is that the Supreme Court did its job, deciding a case based upon the facts and a fair application of the law and the constitution. The court did not debate whether there would be capital punishment in Tennessee — that is the job of the legislature and the governor.
Sen. Bell also raised the case of Leonard Smith in his recent column. Smith was convicted of a brutal double murder and has been in prison since 1984. He remains in prison today and is not going to get out of prison — ever. It is correct that the court vacated his death sentence, but what is left out of the story is that the court found multiple errors in Smith’s case including failure to consider Smith’s intellectual disability, ineffective assistance of counsel and denial of a recusal motion by a judge who had also prosecuted Smith. Once again, the court was doing its job, and following the law, exactly what we want a good judge to do.
We agree with our friend Sen. Bell that voters should make informed decisions in this year’s judicial retention elections. Those decisions should be informed by facts, not by incomplete information or partisan posturing. The judicial branch is the one branch of our government that is to be removed from partisan politics and it is up to the voters to ensure that this remains true in Tennessee.
Cynthia Richardson Wyrick is president of the Tennessee Bar Association.