No pressing need to overturn current state justices

No pressing need to overturn current state justices

June 8th, 2014 in Opinion Free Press

Major League Baseball players have a shelf life. Nobody's going to pay them $15 million a year for their ability to pitch a baseball or swing a bat when they're, say, 56. So they - and their agents - try to get teams to pay them as much money as they can while their skills are marketable.

Tennessee state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has that frame of mind about Republicans and statewide offices. The party holds the governorship and sound majorities in the state House and state Senate. Ramsey would like to include the state Supreme Court and the state attorney general in that list while the getting is good, and he has made it his business to spearhead an effort to do so.

Three justices, all appointed by former Democrat Gov. Phil Bredesen, are up for retention. That's a yes/no vote you'll have to make in the August general election regarding Justices Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade. (Two justices appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam are not up for retention votes this year.)

Ramsey would like you to vote no, citing the Court's 2011 decision to vacate a death sentence for a convicted murderer (though a life prison sentence eventually was given), the possibility the Court might overturn payouts on various civil lawsuits and the fact an all-Republican Supreme Court could appoint a conservative attorney general.

While it's understandable the speaker wants to strike while the iron is hot, his reasons don't measure up to the precedent for retaining justices unless they do something egregiously wrong or embarrassing.

Imagine a United States Supreme Court that might change personnel every four years, depending on the party of the president. It's certainly not what the Founders had in mind. Just imagine a Supreme Court ruling on a matter and that matter being overturned a few years later and then a few years later and ... chaos.

Ramsey admittedly would like to have an attorney general - the current one, Robert Cooper, was appointed by a Democrat-majority Court (and Tennessee is the only one of the 50 states to appoint their AG in this manner) - who sides with him on every issue.

"Folks," he said at the party's recent annual fundraiser, "it's time that we had a Republican attorney general in the state of Tennessee."

But Cooper, in general, has been nonpartisan and relatively controversy free. And good things come to those who wait. Remember how long it took to turn Tennessee from a Democrat-dominated state into a Republican-dominated state? How many years Republicans were gerrymandered into districts to suit Democrat desires? Well, the shoe's now on the other foot.

The justices up for a vote are no spring chickens, either. Wade is 66, Clark nearly 64 and Lee 60. They won't be around forever.

And just down the way, in November, Haslam reminds voters, is a proposed amendment that would continue to allow the governor to appoint Supreme Court and appellate court judges but also would give the state legislature - including Ramsey - the right to reject the governor's choices.

No, this effort by the Senate speaker is an overreach, and it's opposed by a bipartisan group of lawyers and judges, including Republican-appointed former state Supreme Court Justice Mickey Barker of Chattanooga.

The Tennessee Bar Association has even gotten involved, taking the unusual step of writing an op-ed piece for the Chattanooga Times Free Press to counter one written against the retention of the justices by state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.

The Bar Association also took what it called an "unprecedented step" in polling its 12,000 members to see what they think of the justices. Members will be asked in a secret ballot whether they highly recommend retention, recommend retention, do not recommend retention or do not have an informed opinion at this time.

The poll will close tomorrow, and results are expected to be announced by mid-June.

Bar Association executive director Allan Ramsaur said the group took the step because "a lot of people" were asking what the group could do to "ensure a fair, impartial judiciary."

Since many Bar Association members lean left, the outcome is likely to favor retaining the justices, but the effort does point up the highly unusual nature of Ramsey's effort.

Without more evidence to the contrary, our suggestion is to retain the justices.