Republican probe of Tennessee Supreme Court's chief justice stalls

Republican probe of Tennessee Supreme Court's chief justice stalls

June 25th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade talks about challenges for the upcoming retention vote for Supreme Court justice on Aug. 7. Chief Justice Wade spent the day visiting with area officials including Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and various judges and attorneys.

Photo by Tim Barber/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - A Republican-led Senate investigation stalled Tuesday on whether Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade improperly interfered with an independent panel's evaluations of other judges.

That came after an ad hoc panel headed by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, spent four hours peppering top officials with the state Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission and the state Board of Judicial Conduct about the actions of Wade, a Democrat, and the panels' own responses to them.

The officials' take?

No laws were broken, no judicial rules violated when Wade found out, from a leak, about Performance Evaluation Commission members' initial negative evaluations of three Court of Appeals judges up for reelection in August.

Wade later voiced concerns about the negative evaluations publicly. He defended the judges professional performance in a newspaper interview late last year and said they should get another chance by evaluators.

Senate Republicans argue Wade's comments constituted an election endorsement, which is prohibited.

Well, not really, an official said.

"If the statement had been 'everyone needs to get behind these judges on August 7th,' that would be an absolutely clear statement of an endorsement in an election rather than an implied endorsement," said Shelby County Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft, a Republican and chairman of the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.

The board investigated the issue.

Bell later took issue with the determination.

"Maybe what he [Wade] did was not illegal or unethical, but it stinks to high heavens," Bell told reporters following the hearing.

Tuesday's hearing took place as the powerful Republican Senate speaker, Ron Ramsey, spearheads a partisan effort to unseat Wade and Supreme Court Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark.

All three are Democrats and all three are on a retention ballot on Aug. 7 for another eight-year term in which voters will be asked to retain or replace them.

Craft's staff investigated Wade's actions based on what they said was an "anonymous" tip.

Bell later said he was the one who raised the issue, sending a copy of last fall's Knoxville News Sentinel article to the board.

Wade's statements to the paper constituted an endorsement, he said.

Committee Republicans also questioned how Wade got wind of evaluators' initial recommendations.

Bell said two members of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission complained to him they were getting complaints from attorneys about the negative recommendations hours after the supposedly confidential recommendations were made.

Joseph Woodruff, vice chairman of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, said he was getting plenty of heat, too. He said he did not get any calls from Wade.

Woodruff said language in the state's judicial rules of conduct are "contradictory" about confidentiality issues. The interviews are open. The final recommendations, which are submitted to voters, are open. But the initial draft report has been treated as confidential.

The whole thing needs to be revisited and the different sections straightened out, said Woodruff, a Republican.

Pressed about who leaked the information about the three negative recommendations to Wade, Woodruff said it was "hearsay" but related he was told by the evaluation commission's chairman, Maury County Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Jones of Columbia, that it came from the panel's outgoing liaison from the Administrative Office of the Court.

Woodruff said two of the appellate judges, Cammille R. McMullen of Memphis, and Andy D. Bennett of Nashville, didn't do well in their first interview sessions before the evaluation commission. They did much better the second go around, he said, and the evaluation was changed to retain.

Senate Republicans and other conservative critics charge it was pressure.

Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis later charged the whole Senate hearing was partisan "and is totally about personalizing the retention election ... and the decision was made to go after the chief justice on an issue."

That's ridiculous, Bell said.

"We would never have been here if Justice Wade hadn't made those comments that were reported back in October or November. That's why we're here."

He said he doesn't see the panel meeting again prior to the election.

"I do want to get some concrete proposals from members" to tighten the law, he said.

Former state appellate judge Lew Conner, who is backing all three of the justices in the retention election, called Tuesday's hearing a "witch hunt."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.