Price tag on Tennessee Supreme Court justices retention election fight: $2.4 million

Price tag on Tennessee Supreme Court justices retention election fight: $2.4 million

October 13th, 2014 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

NASHVILLE - Warring sides in Tennessee's historic state Supreme Court election battle spent a record-shattering $2.4 million, a final tally of expenditures reveals.

Democratic Justices Sharon Lee, Gary Wade and Connie Clark collectively spent $1.13 million of that in their successful effort to win their retention elections on Aug. 7 in what is easily the most expensive Supreme Court contest in Tennessee history.

Justices were fighting efforts by powerful Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and conservative hardliner groups to oust them in the Aug. 7 election.

Supporting the justices' cause was Tennesseans for Fair Courts, an independent expenditure group, which spent $345,000 to back them, according to third-quarter financial disclosures filed by almost all parties with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

The final tab includes spending from July 28 through Aug. 7 combined with previous expenditures.

Both sides' spending was heavily directed at television, but there were direct mail and phone banking efforts as well.

On the "no" side, the Tennessee Forum, a "super PAC," spent nearly $718,000 in its unsuccessful effort to persuade state voters to ditch the three justices, whom they accused of being out-of-step liberals.

Ramsey, or at least special interests contributing to his leadership PAC, RAAMPAC, threw a total of $605,000 into Tennessee Forum's effort.

Also spending big was the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group of elected state Republican officials. The group reported spending $196,865 and also gave money to Tennessee Forum.

In all, the pro-Supreme Court side spent a combined $1.47 million while the noes spent at least a combined $914,562. Actually, more since one of the groups involved, the Tennessee chapter of the billionaire Koch brothers-aligned Americans for Prosperity, was spending money on radio ads criticizing the justices.

While AFP-Tennessee criticized the justices plenty in the ads, they never directly said voters should vote to retain or reject them. Thus, they were not involved in "express advocacy" and don't have to tell the public anything, according to Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Registry of Election Finance.

In the end, Lee, Wade and Clark won comfortably. But Ramsey and his conservative allies nonetheless wrested somewhat of a victory when justices kicked Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper to the curb. A Democrat himself, Cooper found himself attacked repeatedly by the conservative groups.

Tennessee Supreme Court justices name the attorney general. They recently replaced Cooper with Herbert Slatery, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's chief legal counsel. Haslam didn't join the ouster effort.

In Nov. 4 campaign developments

• An Alexandria, Va.-based group, Republicans for Choice, waded into the fight Sunday over Tennessee's proposed Amendment 1, which seeks to strip the state constitution of abortion protections resulting from a 2000 state Supreme Court decision.

"68 percent of Republicans can be wrong," the group says in a full-page ad running in the Times Free Press' Sunday editions. "Vote NO on Amendment 1."

The group cites three reasons to vote, starting with "let's remind our State and National GOP Leadership that the MAJORITY of the rank and file GOP still believes a government that 'governs least governs best.'" The ad says Tennesseans "don't want to give more of our power to the State Legislature."

It also says voting "no" sends a "message" to the national GOP and national media that the majority of Republicans "respect women and are not trying to control their lives."

Meanwhile, Tennesseans for Yes on 1 launched its first television ad in the fight last week. The 30-second spot shows a group of people walking with black tape over their mouths. A voice-over says the state Supreme Court ruling "silenced the right of the people to enforce reasonable regulation of abortion in our state.

"We can't require that abortion facilities be licensed or inspected," the narrator continues. The ad also says nothing in the state constitution bans state expenditures.

The Yes on 1 organization is spending at least $19,000 on three of four Chattanooga television stations to air the ad, a check of Federal Communications Commission public files shows.

• The Vote Yes on 2 campaign, is gearing up today with its first TV spot that will begin running across the state next week in support of Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 is a judicial selection amendment to the state constitution that proponents say will "strengthen the voice of the voters in selecting appellate court judges in Tennessee."

The 30-second ad features Gov. Haslam and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who are co-chairs of the Vote Yes on 2 campaign, as well as an array of top leaders from well-known organizations from across the state, encouraging Tennesseans to vote "yes."

Amendment 2 seeks to end decades of criticism that Tennessee's current selection/retention process for appointing and electing appellate judges is unconstitutional. It would continue the process of Supreme Court justices and other appellate judges being initially appointed by governors and then going before voters in retain/reject votes with no opponent.

It makes one change in the current process, making the governor's picks subject to legislative confirmation.

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