University of Denver

Tennessee Justices Launch Retention Campaign with Bar Support

Former Manager, Quality Judges Initiative

IAALS Online wrote earlier this month about the burgeoning campaign in opposition to the retention of the three Tennessee justices on the August ballot. Those justices are responding with their own campaign. Their coordinated campaign is known as Keep Tennessee Courts Fair, and it has raised $600,000 to date.

The three justices standing for retention—Cornelia Clark, Gary Wade, and Sharon Lee—were appointed to the bench by Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen from a shortlist of well-qualified candidates identified by the judicial nominating commission. They recently gave an interview to a local news outlet in which they discussed the threat that the retention challenge poses to judicial independence. In their remarks, the justices stressed the fact that judicial decision making is not about taking sides with Democrats or Republicans, adopting a pro- or anti-business stance, or being tough or soft on crime, but about making a decision in each case before them based on the law and the facts.

Lieutenant Governor and House Speaker Ron Ramsey, a Republican, is leading the anti-retention effort and seeking to raise money from business leaders. In the last supreme court retention election in 2006, no money was raised or spent. Commentators speculate that the opposition campaign could be fueled by as much as $2.5 million of outside money and note that "You can't un-ring that bell. . . . [O]nce the spending starts it doesn't stop.”

Tennessee attorneys are entering the fray well. The Tennessee Bar Association is conducting a first-ever judicial poll of attorneys in the state, asking its members whether they "highly recommend retention" of each justice, "recommend retention," "do not recommend retention," or "do not have an informed opinion at this time." Results will be made public in early June. The Nashville Bar Association has sent a resolution to its members encouraging them to vote "yes" on retention, and Nashville attorneys raised $100,000 for the pro-retention effort at a recent fundraiser.

The TBA is not the only group in the state assessing the justices. The state's judicial performance evaluation commission rated all three justices "above average" and recommended that voters retain them, based on surveys of other judges, attorneys, and court staff, review of their written opinions, examination of caseload and workload statistics, and relevant public input.