Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade had a busy Friday in Chattanooga.
The state's top judge was here talking with mayors, judges, a police union representative and lawyers to broaden support for his and his fellow justices' retention in the Aug. 7 election.
What's been a fairly standard, low-key affair every eight years for the past quarter century is in danger of becoming a politicized campaign unlike what is intended in Tennessee, Wade said.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, has pushed to oust Wade and fellow justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee, all appointed by Democratic former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
In Tennessee, Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor after a vetting process by a qualifications commission. Every eight years, or at the next scheduled general election, the voters are asked whether to "retain" or "replace" appointed justices.
The justices appoint the Tennessee attorney general. The current officeholder, Robert E. Cooper Jr., has run afoul of Ramsey and other conservative legislators for his decision to join certain multistate lawsuits and opt out of others, most notably when Cooper declined to join in a multistate lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act.
Ramsey has said more than once that he wants a Republican attorney general. If the voters decide the current justices should be replaced, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will name their successors and the new justices reliably can be expected to name an attorney general in the same party.
As part of the "replace" campaign, Ramsey's supporters have labeled the justices "anti-business" and "soft on crime" with little foundation, based on rebuttals by the Nashville Bar Association and other attorneys supporting the justices.
This week, Nashville-area political and public affairs strategist George Scoville filed an ethical complaint alleging that by appearing together in a recent TV interview the three justices violated canons of judicial conduct, specifically by endorsing each other in the retention vote.
Speaking with local media at the Davis and Hoss Law Firm here late Friday afternoon, Wade said he'd never endorsed another justice. He said the criticisms fall short, as he is allowed to "uphold the integrity" of the court by speaking favorably of judges whose work he reviews.
"We leave politics outside the courthouse door," Wade said. "I think when people walk into the courthouse they want a level playing field."
The three justices each received a nearly 93 percent approval rating for retention by the 2,100 Tennessee Bar Association members who voted in a poll released this month.
Wade hopes to broaden that approval by explaining what he considers jeopardy to the fairness of the state's court system if politics are injected into the retention process.
Though most judicial elections receive little public attention in comparison to other statewide offices, Wade said once residents hear about the efforts to politicize the process, they're not happy.
Contact staff writer Todd South at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter@tsouthCTFP.