TN Democrats have history of using politics to control judiciary

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Three Tennessee Supreme Court justices up for a retention vote, supposedly targeted for removal by big business, stress politics has no place in the courtroom. But a brief glimpse of state history shows otherwise.

One could make the case Tennessee Democrats have benefited handsomely by using partisan politics to keep the state’s judiciary under their control.

That case might be made by citing the words of state Attorney General Bob Cooper, a Democrat appointed by the justices, in addition to a 2005 newspaper article profiling the life of Chief Justice Gary Wade.

JUSTICES SPEAK: Phil Williams of Nashville’s News Channel 5 greets Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee, Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justice Cornelia Clark for an interview the station aired Tuesday.

Justice Sharon Lee appeared alongside Justices Cornelia Clark and Wade Tuesday on News Channel 5 of Nashville, arguing against such a system.

“I’m troubled by the partisan attack on our judicial system,” Lee told reporter Phil Williams. “Politics has no place in the courtroom.”

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed the three justices.

As Tennessee Watchdog has already reported, certain news agencies reported that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, wants to unleash big business interests and the Koch brothers against the justices in an attempt to change the political direction of the court.

The same reports also said Ramsey wants a court that will appoint a Republican attorney general, now that Tennessee has a Republican governor.

Tennessee Watchdog reported last week that some of the same lawyers who favor retention for the justices and repeat these claims are holding pricey fundraisers to benefit those justices.

Are they using big business and the Koch brothers as a boogeyman — perhaps unnecessarily — for fundraising purposes?

News Channel 5, for instance, held up Nashville laywer Lew Conner as an example of a Republican disgusted with Ramsey’s plan. But in an interview with Tennessee Watchdog, Conner said he had no proof big business is going to dump more than $1 million into the election, a claim he and other attorneys make in fundraiser invitations.

As News Channel 5 reporter Phil Williams said in Tuesday’s report, while citing Tennessee Watchdog:

“While the outside money sought by Ramsey has yet to appear, the justices are taking no chances, participating in fundraisers across the state where lawyers from both sides of the aisle have contributed several hundred thousand dollars to help fend off the effort to vote them out.”

Williams didn’t cite any Republican contributors other than Conner.

FLANKED: Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee stand by Nashville lawyer Lew Conner at a fundraiser this month.

Going by that logic, justices and their supporters are raising big money to counter a threat they can’t prove.

The three justices and their spokesman, Michele Wojciechowski, were unavailable for comment Wednesday, as Wojciechowski said they were traveling.

Tennessee Watchdog also contacted other pro-retention supporters for comment, including the mysterious organizers behind the Facebook page Keep Tennessee’s Supreme Court Fair, but they didn’t immediately respond Wednesday.

Also not responding to our questions was Jay Watson, administrator of the web page Fair Courts TN, an apparent nonprofit that argues for keeping politics out of the judiciary in Tennessee.

Watson’s page links to the Facebook page.

Repeating the narrative that politics has no place in the courtroom, Wade said this to Williams on Tuesday night’s broadcast: “Justice is neither Democrat nor Republican.”

According to the Aug. 8, 2005, Mountain Press newspaper, Wade has deep Democratic Party credentials and raised money for former Democratic Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, to Wade’s possible benefit.

“He’s a Democrat, a proud Democrat, in the reddest county in Tennessee,” the newspaper said of Wade.

“Wade and Gov. McWherter went way back. Both were Democrats. Wade had raised money for McWherter’s first run for governor,” according to the Mountain Press.

Chief Justice Gary Wade

Chief Justice Gary Wade

“He had been out of the mayor’s office three months when then-Gov. Ned McWherter — the creator of TennCare — called him out of the blue and asked if he’d like to be a judge. Wade applied, was among the top three recommended to the governor by the selection committee and got the job on Oct. 29, 1987. He was not yet 40 years old.”

Speaking to a Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society dinner in 2009, Cooper remarked about how state Democrats changed the judiciary — to their benefit — in the early 1970s.

At that time the General Assembly placed all of the appellate courts — intermediate and supreme — under a merit selection plan called the Modified Missouri Plan, Cooper said.

Like the current process, it involved a screening commission for the governor, followed by a yes-no retention vote.

The Legislature soon had second thoughts about what it had done, primarily because three justices on the court were expected to retire before the end of the term.

“The Democratic leadership feared that Winfield Dunn, the first Republican governor in 50 years, would appoint a majority of Republican justices, who in turn would appoint a Republican as attorney general, who at that time was a member of the powerful State Building Commission,” Cooper said.

“This was not acceptable. So, the General Assembly removed the Supreme Court from the Modified Missouri Plan during its 1974 session over Governor Dunn’s veto.”

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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