Tennessee could be facing the costliest state Supreme Court election in its history now that conservatives have targeted three sitting justices on the state’s highest court.
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has been circulating a document that takes aim at Supreme Court Justices Cornelia Clark, Gary Wade and Sharon Lee. All three were appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and all three are up for election in August. The replacements for two retiring Republican justices won’t be on the ballot yet.
Ramsey has been meeting with business leaders, victims’ rights groups and others to make the case that all three should go. He says he’s using the meetings for informational purposes only, not fundraising. But Ramsey is also close to at least one conservative organization that is targeting judges in other states.
Both sides could end up in a race to generate campaign cash. Supporters of the judges are already trying to raise money, saying they fear millions of dollars of outside money will be coming in to attack the Tennessee Supreme Court justices.
“It certainly seems like it’s poised to be a very expensive and very politicized race,” said Alicia Bannon, a counselor at the Democracy Program at the Brennon Center for Justice.
That would contrast with the 2006 Supreme Court retention, in which officials with the state Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance say no money was spent.
Tennessee Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor and voters decide yes or no on whether they want to retain them for an eight-year term. Only one Tennessee Supreme Court justice has been voted out. It happened in 1996 when a grass-roots campaign targeted then-Justice Penny White after she voted to overturn a death sentence.
If even one of the justices is defeated it could tip the balance of the Tennessee Supreme Court, as a Republican is likely to be appointed to fill the seat.
A bipartisan group of prominent Nashville lawyers is hosting a fundraiser this week to fight back against the possible avalanche of anti-incumbent money. An invitation to the event says the independence of the Tennessee Supreme Court is at stake because millions of dollars from outside the state “will be deployed in a coordinated campaign” effort to remove the justices.
“What we want are judges who are independent, who don’t owe anybody anything,” attorney Aubrey Harwell said. He said a diverse and bipartisan committee with members appointed by Ramsey had already recommended that all three justices be retained on the bench.
Harwell, a Democrat, is hosting the fundraiser with Hal Hardin, the former U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, also a Democrat and retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Frank Drowota. The other hosts are Republicans Lew Connor, a former Tennessee Court of Appeals judge, and Robert Echols, a former federal court judge who sat on the bench in Nashville.
Ramsey said he has no idea how much money will be raised in the election, but he’s adamant that he hasn’t raised any.
“I’m just giving the information out there,” Ramsey told a group of reporters last week, while noting that the other side was already raising money.
Still, Ramsey is a prominent member of the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization that has launched an initiative targeting judicial races across the country.
The organization is looking at Tennessee and some other states but has not made a decision about sinking money into the judicial races here, RSLC spokeswoman Jill Bader said. “But Tennessee is definitely high on our radar,” Bader said.
If the election turns into an arms race for cash, expect future elections to be costly, Bannon, at the Center for Justice, said.
“You can’t un-ring that bell,” Bannon said. “What we’ve found is that once the spending starts it doesn’t stop.”