Judges' donations draw criticism

Judges' donations draw criticism

January 10th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE - A state lawmaker critical of how Tennessee appellate judges get elected says it's "a little more than coincidence" that two state Supreme Court justices gave money to his opponent in last year's Republican primary for Senate District 9.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said some judges "kind of like to sit in their lofty perches and claim they are above politics, but they're just as political as anyone else when it comes to protecting their own jobs."

Bell said he plans to battle in the legislative session that starts Tuesday to change the process and make appellate judges run and be elected like trial judges.

Bell, then a state representative, defeated former Sen. Lou Patten, of Cleveland, in the Aug. 5 primary and went on to win the race to Dewayne Bunch, who retired.

Justices Sharon Lee and Gary Wade each contributed $500 to Patten in December 2009, state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance filings show.

Court of Appeals Judge Charles D. Susano Jr. gave Patten $250.

All three of the judges are Democrats.

Sevier County Circuit Judge Rex Henry Ogle, a Republican, gave $1,000 to Patten, records show. Ogle's wife is Court of Criminal Appeals Court Judge Norma McGee Ogle.

Administrative Office of the Courts spokeswoman Laura Click said Lee and Wade "respectively declined" an interview request from the Times Free Press. Susano could not be reached, Click said.

The contributions are legal under the state's judicial canons of ethics, Click said. The Tennessee Court of the Judiciary's chief legal counsel, Tim Discenza, agreed.

Records show a number of judges contributed to various of campaigns.

All five Supreme Court justices back the Tennessee Plan for selecting and retaining judges. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals judges are appointed to the bench. When their terms are up, voters cast yes or no ballots on whether they should continue serving.

Bell has been a persistent critic of the method. As a House member, he joined some other Republican lawmakers who argue the Tennessee Plan is unconstitutional. The plan has been upheld in rulings by special Supreme Courts.

A group called Tennesseans for Fair and Impartial Courts hopes to block any change.

The group said in a in a December fundraising letter that "judges in Tennessee should continue to be selected based on their ability to fairly apply the law, and not based on their ability to raise millions on campaign donations and curry favor with interest groups."

Members of the group include former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William M. "Mickey" Barker, of Signal Mountain, a Republican, and Max Bahner of the Chattanooga-based law firm Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel P.C.

Bahner and other supporters of the Tennessee Plan draw a distinction between judges' and lawmakers' elections.

In an interview, Bahner also noted of the judges that "every private citizen has the right to make a contribution."

What is good about the Tennessee Plan is it "avoids the problems we have right here next door to us in Alabama, where a Supreme Court race costs $6 million," Bahner said. "And that money's got to come from somewhere."

"When people think judges have to raise a lot of money, I don't think they can ever be as confident in the independence of the judge," Bahner said.