NASHVILLE - Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey says he doesn't intend to put any of his own campaign cash behind his push to defeat three Democratic state Supreme Court justices up for yes/no retention votes on the August ballot.
"No, none," Ramsey told reporters Thursday after a State Building Commission meeting at Legislative Plaza.
Ramsey has been meeting with business and other groups about tackling Chief Justice Gary Wade and fellow Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark. His staff also has prepared a campaign outline that seeks to portray them as soft on crime and anti-business.
He's spoken with only one group outside Tennessee, the Washington, D.C.-based Republican State Leadership Committee. The group has expressed interest in Tennessee as part of its recently announced national "Judicial Fairness Initiative" aimed at putting more conservative jurists on state Supreme Courts nationwide.
But the effort has been criticized by retired judges, including former state Supreme Court Justice William "Mickey" Barker, a Signal Mountain Republican, and Lew Conner, a former state appellate judge and also a Republican.
Conner has raised concerns about outside groups, including some associated with billionaire conservative brothers Charles and David Koch, spending vast sums in an election he says should be nonpartisan.
"That's another thing I think is a red herring that they have thrown out -- they being the Supreme Court justices -- to raise a red flag," Ramsey said. "Now, did the State Legislative Campaign Committee call me and ask about this one time? Yes, because I'm big in their organization. I was at their very first meeting in 2002, and they helped us take over" the state Legislature.
Ramsey said if "outside groups call me, I'll give them the information. But I plan on not contacting them."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam is shying away from Ramsey's effort in the Aug. 7 election. The governor told reporters this week he worries it may "muddy the waters" on a state constitutional amendment up for voters' consideration this fall dealing with elections of Supreme Court and other appellate judges.
Currently, state Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges are appointed by governors who select from a list of nominees screened by a panel comprised mostly of attorneys. They then run on a yes/no retention ballot in the next statewide election.
Critics have assailed the process for years, arguing the Tennessee Constitution requires traditional elections, but the retention ballot has been approved by two special Supreme Courts. The proposed constitutional amendment is an effort largely to enshrine current practice. But it does include a major change: Governors' picks would have to be approved by the General Assembly.
Tennessee's Supreme Court has five justices. Two are not seeking re-election this year. One is William Koch, who once served as legal adviser to former Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander but was appointed by Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen in 2007. The other is Janice Holder, appointed by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1996.
Ramsey said he had issues with both of them as well as the Democrats and would have included them in the ouster effort.
"If they were here, we wouldn't have them retained either," Ramsey said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.