NASHVILLE - Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said today he won't take part in efforts by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountvile, to defeat three Democratic state Supreme Court justices on a yes/no retention election ballot this August.
"Well, I'm not going to be a part of that effort," Haslam told reporters this afternoon after attending an unreleated event at Lipscomb University in Nashville. "I'll just put it that way."
The governor said he has a "good working relationship" with Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia A. Clark.
Ramsey, whose position as Senate speaker is carries the title of lieutentant governor, is pressing forward with efforts to oust the three justices.
He recently began sharing a power-point presentation that outlines potential lines of attack including charges the justices have been "soft on crime" and unfavorable to business, Nashville's WTVF-TV reported earlier this week.
All three justices have stepped up their appearances around the state in recent weeks and earlier today met with local attorneys and some civic and business leaders in Chattanooga.
While steering clear of the efforts to oust the justices, Haslam said he does intend to be "very engaged" in the "Vote Yes" effort on a proposed amendment to the Tennessee Constitution, which he called "very important for clarifying how we elect judges."
Haslam said he has some concerns the campaign against the judges could hurt chances of passing the constitutional change on judicial selection. It directs governors to appoint Supreme Court justices who would then have to be confirmed by the state Legislature.
Currently, the five Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges run on yes/no retention ballots in which voters decide whether or not to keep them. Justices are initially appointed to the state's highest court by the governor, acting on the recommendations of the Judicial Nominating Commission.
Critics contend that violates the state Constitution, saying it requires traditional elections with opponents. But the provision has been upheld by special Supreme Courts over the years.
Ramsey had raised the issue of a coordinated campaign with Haslam, the governor acknowledged.
"He's been very upfront about here's something he's interested in doing," Haslam said. "That's not my role. I told him I would not be joining in that effort."
Asked why not, the governor said, "I think on an election like this, I'm trying to think of the best way to put that, to let the candidates themselves speak for why they should be retained and as the person who would be appointing their replacement I don't think it's a proper role for me to play."
The governor said he won't be defending the judges for the same reason.
Justices are getting active bipartisan support from several retired top judges across the state, including former Supreme Court Chief Justice William "Mickey" Barker of Signal Mountain.
"I know all three of these people," said Barker, a Republican, in an interview this week with the Times Free Press. "They're dedicated. They're hard working. There has never ever been any partisan consideration in any decision made when I was on the court, and I'm confident it's the same now."