TN lawyers cry foul over money in politics, yet raise big cash for court justices
By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — The same Tennessee lawyers complaining about big business interests throwing around money to remove three state Supreme Court justices continue to raise vast sums of cash for them.
These lawyers gripe that money and politics will taint the independence of the judiciary, yet photos show just how much these lawyers have immersed themselves financially to help the justices.
The pictures appeared on the Facebook page of a somewhat mysterious organization urging voters to keep those justices in a Yes/No retention vote this summer.
FLANKED: Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee stand by Nashville attorney Lew Conner at a fundraiser last week.
An administrator for Keep Tennessee’s Supreme Court Fair posted them on its Facebook page last week.
“About 300 attorneys from the Nashville Bar Association attended a fundraiser at Waller, raising $200,000 in funds to support our Supreme Court Justices Clark, Lee, and Chief Justice Gary Wade, as they continue to fight to bring justice to Tennesseans,” according to the Facebook photo caption.
Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed all three justices — Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee and Wade.
If voters choose not to retain even one, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, likely will appoint another Republican, shifting the political balance of the five-member majority Democrat court.
As previously reported, News Channel 5 of Nashville held up attorney Lew Conner as a Republican disgusted with fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey portraying the justices as soft on the death penalty. News Channel 5 implied Ramsey’s claims were misleading, and the station carried the narrative that big business and the Koch brothers were trying to buy this election.
Tennessee Watchdog specifically asked Conner to prove claims he has made on television and in a fundraising letter that big business interests were paying $1 million to unseat the justices.
Facebook photos show Conner posing arm-in-arm with justices Clark and Lee at the fundraiser he hosted on the 27th floor of his Nashville law firm last week.
Other photos showed other lawyers socializing with all three justices while raising money for them.
The Facebook page itself is directly connected to the website Fair Courts TN. The address ends with the .org domain name, typically used by nonprofits. Nonprofits may not blatantly urge people to vote for or against a particular candidate.
RETAIN: A message on Keep Tennessee’s Supreme Court Fair explicitly urging voters to retain the three justices.
The administrator of the page, Jay Watson, posts stories about big business buying elections and the dangers of a poorly informed electorate involving themselves in judicial elections.
That website links to the organization’s Twitter page, which, in turn, links to Watson’s personal Twitter page, where he describes himself as a Vanderbilt University employee and a fan of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Tennessee Watchdog found nothing about Fair Courts TN in state PAC registrations or on the secretary of state’s website.
So why is a nonprofit entity showcasing political fundraisers on its Facebook page?
What entity is doing the fundraising?
Are the checks going to the judges or someone else?
Tennessee Watchdog made four attempts to reach Watson via his personal Facebook page and his work phone number and email address Wednesday, but he did not immediately respond to our requests.
Tennessee Watchdog has acquired a fundraising invitation letter from the Knoxville law firm of Butler, Vines & Babb, which asserts the following:
“This is not a lawyer issue this is a Tennessee independent judiciary issue. But if lawyers don’t take the lead on this, I am afraid no one will.”
Attorney James Wright, who said he couldn’t remember if he co-wrote the invitation letter with other attorneys, said the justices cannot speak out on their own behalf.
“For the general public to understand the issue going on, this isn’t going to rise to their radar screen,” Wright said, adding the business community will likely spend more than whatever the justices can raise.
“Lawyers have a special role when issues come up to be able to try to inform the public as to what’s happening. There is a special role in this situation where maybe uniquely we might understand the issue better than the public might have an ability to understand what’s going on.”
“When a group that may be heavily funded comes in and runs a campaign against them you’re dealing with someone not used to running a campaign over having any campaign dealing with a concerted campaign effort against them. That becomes a David versus Goliath issue,” Wright told Tennessee Watchdog.
Contact Christopher Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.
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