published Thursday, May 8th, 2014

TN Speaker Ron Ramsey won't use own cash trying to unseat 3 Democratic high court justices

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks to reporters in his legislative office in Nashville in this 2013 file photo.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, speaks to reporters in his legislative office in Nashville in this 2013 file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he doesn't intend to put any of his own campaign cash behind his push to defeat three incumbent Democratic state Supreme Court justices up for yes/no retention votes on the August ballot.

"No, none," Ramsey told reporters today after a State Building Commission meeting at Legislative Plaza in Nashville.

Ramsey has been meeting with business and other groups about tackling Chief Justice Gary Wade and fellow Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark. And his staff has prepared a campaign outline that seeks to portray them as "soft on crime" and anti-business.

The speaker said he's spoken with only one group outside Tennessee, the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee. The group has expressed interest in Tennessee as part of its recently announced national "Judicial Fairness Initiative" aimed at putting more conservative jurists on state Supreme Courts nationwide.

But the effort has been criticized by retired judges, including former Supreme Court Justice William "Mickey" Barker, a Signal Mountain Republican, a Lew Conner, a former state appellate judge and also a Republican.

Conner has raised concerns about outside groups, including some associated with the billionaire conservative Charles and David Koch, spending vast sums in an election he says should be nonpartisan.

Ramsey said he's not spoken to any out-of-state groups other than the Republican State Leadership Committee.

"That's another thing I think is a red herring that they have thrown out -- they being the Supreme Court justices -- to raise a red flag," Ramsey said. "Now, did they State Legislative Campaign Committees call me and ask about this one time? Yes, because I'm big in their oganization. I was at their very first meeting in 2002, and they helped us take over" the state Legislature.

Ramsey said if "outside groups call me, I'll give them the information. But I plan on not contacting them."

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is shying away from Ramsey's effort in the Aug. 7 election. The governor told reporters earlier this week he worries it may "muddy the waters" on a proposed state constitutional amendment up for voters' consideration this fall dealing with elections of Supreme Court and other appellate judges.

Ramsey said he is puzzled by that.

“I cannot connect the dots on that one,” Ramsey told reporters after a Building Commission meeting at Legislative Plaza Thursday. Urging people to vote to remove Democratic judges “legitimizes the retention election process,” he said, “and in my opinion, in the end, will actually help the amendment pass, not hurt the amendment.”

Currently, state Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges are initially appointed by governors who select from a list of nominees screened by a panel comprised mostly of attorneys. They then run on a yes/no retention ballot in the next statewide election.

Critics have assailed the process for years, arguing the Tennessee Constitution requires traditional elections, but the retention ballot has been approved by two special Supreme Courts. The proposed constitutional amendment is an effort largely enshrine current practice. But it does include a major change: Governors' picks would have to be approved by the General Assembly.

Tennessee's Supreme Court has five justices. Two other justices chose not to seek reelection this year. One is William Koch, who once served as legal advisor to former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander but was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007. The other is Janice Holder, appointed by then-Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican, back in 1996.

Ramsey said he had issues with both of them as well as the Democrats and would have included them in the ouster effort.

“If they were here, we wouldn’t have them retained either," Ramsey said. "But they’re not any more. They’re not on the ballot this time.”

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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