A local state senator scoffed Monday at the idea that judge races in Tennessee are nonpartisan, while two of the state Supreme Court justices facing retention votes this week called the conservative push to oust them nothing more than a "power grab."
Only two days remain until voters statewide decide whether the state's three Supreme Court justices should be retained. The rhetoric coming from both sides Monday signaled how heated this issue has become.
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, spoke to nearly 50 die-hard Republicans at the Pachyderm Club's regular meeting about why voters should boot Supreme Court Justices Gary Wade, Sharon Lee and Connie Clark.
Bell said the justices "masquerade as apolitical" but their personal donations to Democrats and the court's appointment of state Attorney General Bob Cooper show otherwise.
Wade, Lee and retired Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Mickey Barker held a separate, prearranged news conference one mile away at the Hamilton County Courthouse steps nearly two hours after Bell's speech.
Barker called attacks against the justices in recent months a "slap in the face" of intelligent voters.
Wade and Lee both said that over the course of their personal and professional lives they've donated to politicians in both parties.
Wade also responded that, while the Tennessee Supreme Court does appoint the state attorney general, "once that appointment is made, the attorney general is captain of his own ship."
Opponents have said the justices support the Affordable Care Act, though they've never ruled on a case involving the health care mandate, as it is a federal issue.
Advertisements have linked the justices with Cooper's decision not to join in a multi-state lawsuit against the federal government regarding Obamacare.
Wade was scheduled to speak at the noon event Monday but changed plans when the forum was altered to more of a debate-style format, said Carole Andrews, spokeswoman for Keeping Tennessee Courts Fair, an organization that supports retaining the justices.
"Chief Justice Wade would have gone as the original invitation stood, but unfortunately some hyper-partisans there wanted to turn it into something else altogether," Andrews wrote in an email to the Times Free Press.
She added that the "last-minute" change wasn't appropriate for what was supposed to be a nonpartisan event.
But state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who was at the Pachyderm meeting, cast doubt on Andrews' explanation.
"Frankly, it doesn't surprise me at all that Wade would back out of this debate. The Pachyderm Club is an educated group of highly informed folks who are well aware of Wade's record of ethically questionable and partisan Democrat behavior," Gardenhire wrote in an email to the Times Free Press.
Pachyderm Club President Henry Hoss said he would have preferred that Wade had come to the meeting. Though Wade would have faced tough questions, Hoss said the group could have benefited from hearing what he had to say.
"It was just very unfortunate," Hoss said.
He would have likely faced questions from members such as Teresa Wood, who commented to the group that the race was vitally important for the power that justices have over law in the state.
"You have no idea how much policy [justices] actually write when they write their opinions," Wood said. "And how much that changes your daily lives."
Wade was originally scheduled to speak alone to the group about the retention vote on the Aug. 7 ballot. But Hoss said that in recent weeks state Rep. Gerald McCormick called and was upset that a "liberal Democrat" was going to speak to the group.
Hoss said he and Hamilton County GOP Chairman Tony Sanders then made arrangements to have Bell speak in opposition.
That choice created a debate-style forum, which Andrews said wasn't appropriate given concerns over the nonpartisan nature of the retention election.
Contact staff writer Todd South at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.