CLEVELAND, Tenn. - It is critical that Tennessee maintain a fair and impartial Supreme Court that is free of partisan politics, Justice Sharon Lee said Monday during a stopover here.
Politics belong in the state's legislative and executive branches, but not the courts, she said.
"When I put on the robes, I have to leave politics behind," Lee said.
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said in a phone interview afterward that he disagreed with Lee's assertion.
"Anyone who believes politics are not a part of the judicial process is either ignorant or a good liar," he said.
Lee publicly thanked 10th District Circuit Court Judge Mike Sharp for his support during the visit, part of her campaign to keep her seat on the bench.
Sharp was one of three judges who serve on the nine-member Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that voted to recommend Lee's retention. The issue is on the Aug. 7 election ballot.
"I was very pleased that all nine members of that commission, including Judge Sharp, voted to recommend my retention," Lee said.
The commission's recommendations are based on many hours of case research, face-to-face interviews and surveys made by judges, court staff and lawyers, she said.
Bell said the judicial evaluation review is only one part of a larger picture.
"The Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission only looks at the nuts and bolts of what the justices do," he said.
It does not take into account judicial philosophy, which is just as important an issue, Bell said.
He said he wants the current state Supreme Court justices replaced and to see elections that reveal the ideals of the justices.
During Lee's address, she also called attention to negative attacks funded by out-of-state sources and the multistate conservative push against state judiciaries.
It's a national effort and Tennessee is about to take lead in the spotlight, she said, citing a recent interview that will be published in the New York Times.
Attempts to replace the judiciaries have failed where justices have fought back, Lee said.
"Our message is that politics has no place in the courtroom," she said. "It should not make any difference in the justice you receive, it should not make a difference in the decision that the judge makes."
Bell countered that it is important that the state's justices reflect the conservative nature of the Tennessee electorate.
Lee brushed aside attack advertisements that allege Tennessee's Supreme Court justices are liberal, soft on crime and anti-business.
These messages are funded by out-of-state "dark money" that more than doubles what the justices have raised in their campaigns, Lee said.
None of the attacks cite actual court cases but simply rely on "buzzwords," she said.
The campaign process has been a positive one that has allowed her to really get in touch with Tennesseans, Lee said.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at email@example.com.