Ethics complaint alleges campaign lawbreaking by TN Supreme Court justices

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — In a formal ethics complaint, someone is accusing the three Tennessee Supreme Court justices up for a retention vote this summer of violating campaign finance and expenditure laws and misleading voters about their true intentions.

Tennessee resident George Scoville, who has previously contributed articles about the court to the Daily Caller and United Liberty, filed the complaint with the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct this week.

According to Scoville’s complaint, which cites previous Tennessee Watchdog articles, justices Gary Wade, Connie Clark and Sharon Lee have campaigned using court facilities and also campaigned for one another, activity he said state law prohibits.

George Scoville

Scoville also accuses the justices of raising money through a secretive organization called Keep Tennessee’s Supreme Court Fair, previously investigated by Tennessee Watchdog.

Tennessee Watchdog interviewed Scoville Wednesday for the first of a two-part question and answer interview.

TNW: The accusations you make are serious. The justices and their representatives, no doubt, will maintain it’s strictly a matter of your interpretation and a thorough inquiry will exonerate them. How would you respond?

SCOVILLE: The problem with the Board of Judicial Conduct’s current process is that, in the name of “fairness,” it provides the cover of secrecy to the subjects of its investigations by default. One would think that a Tennessee judge who is confident in his or her side of the case would not only not have a problem with investigations being open, but that they would want them to be open, to demonstrate their innocence in detail to the public. Why all the secrecy?

TNW: The justices are smart people. I realize you cannot get inside their heads to explain their motivations, but if their conduct violated state laws then are you saying they were careless or reckless in what they did? Ignorant? Did they not feel the need to obey the law? Or is there another explanation?

SCOVILLE: If had to guess, I’d say they’re garden variety government officials who like the power, prestige, budgets and lifestyles that come with their positions. If the justices’ conduct violated state laws, I don’t think it’s because the justices were reckless, careless or ignorant. I think it’s because they’re shrewd and calculating, as are the people working to make sure they’re retained, and they didn’t think anyone would give them trouble.

TNW: Most people have very busy lives and don’t follow politics with a fine-tooth comb. Why should they care about this election?

Chief Justice Gary Wade

SCOVILLE: The crescendo of my complaint debunks the notion that the judiciary is somehow independent or nonpolitical. All humans are political animals, and none of us can magically be divorced from our natural political inclinations simply by donning a black robe, wielding a wooden gavel, or swearing an oath of office. Once someone has power, rest assured they will use it.

TNW: In my own reporting, I’ve observed how Keep Tennessee’s Supreme Court Fair is seemingly secretive. But you use the word “unauthorized” to describe them as if they aren’t legally supposed to exist. Can you please elaborate on what you mean by “unauthorized?”

SCOVILLE: KTSCF exists solely to campaign to voters, asking them to support retention for the three incumbents at the ballot box this August. When KTSCF launches a website that accepts donations, or organizes fundraisers on behalf of justices they are doing so outside of what is permissible by the canon.

Further, KTSCF’s website has a “paid for” disclosure at the bottom that says clearly that the three justices’ campaign committees have funded the website.

Neither the justices nor their campaign committees may pay an assessment to KTSCF for any services, up to and including a campaign website. So when I say they are “unauthorized,” I mean “the justices and their campaign committees are not authorized by the Code of Judicial Conduct to pay monies to or raise money through KTSCF.”

TNW: Politicians make false, misleading statements to voters consistently. Why should the standard be higher for a Supreme Court justice?

FLANKED: TN Supreme Court Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee stand by Nashville attorney Lew Conner at a fundraiser last month.

FLANKED: TN Supreme Court Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee stand by Nashville attorney Lew Conner at a fundraiser last month.

SCOVILLE: If a candidate for the Supreme Court can’t or won’t tell the truth, that demonstrates a character flaw in that individual that suggests they are corruptible. If the last possible check against an abuse of power is known to be corruptible, then human liberty becomes subject to the whims of an individual, or handful of individuals. That’s not a world modern, liberal (meaning free, not left-wing) man should have to suffer.

In part two of Tennessee Watchdog’s interview, scheduled to run Friday, Scoville will discuss what he realistically expects to happen as a result of his formal complaint. Scoville also takes a few shots at Tennessee’s establishment media for how they’ve covered the controversy over the retention election so far. He also will share what motivated him to file the complaints.

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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