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The Tennessee Judic-Islative Brance? The Attempt in Tennesse to Introduce Politics into the Supreme Court

While most people would be hard-pressed in a conversation to discuss intelligently the Pythagorean Theorem and the true meaning of the word hypotenuse, both of which were taught in elementary school geometry, it would be a much safer bet that the majority of Tennesseans could name the three branches of government and their basic function: the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. These building blocks of civic education were instilled into the elementary education curriculum long ago. Sure, if you are an avid reader of cnn.com or foxnews.com, these terms are littered throughout the national news websites. On the other hand, if your main news outlet is the Citizen Tribune or the Greeneville Sun, it is unlikely that these will be found on front-page headlines, because the conflicts that arise on a national scene are typically more frequent than what occurs in the state and local political realm.

Recently, an exception to this notion has hit Tennessee and presented itself in the mainstream. Three Tennessee Supreme Court Justices, Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Cornelia Clark, and Justice Sharon Lee, are facing an election-year attack, mainly brought to the forefront by Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and his constituents in the legislature. The conflict is between the legislative branch, which is responsible for making the laws, and the judicial branch, which is responsible for following and interpreting the law regardless of their individual political views.

Here is the way the process is supposed to work in the State of Tennessee: the Governor appoints Justices to the Supreme Court. Every eight years thereafter, the Supreme Court Justices come up for retention elections. To help guide and educate the voters that may not be as familiar with the Supreme Court and their rulings, Tennessee has a Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee composed of a group of independent lawyers and non-lawyers that evaluate the Supreme Court Justices’ performance and base their recommendations on the Justices’ legal expertise and judicial integrity. These retention elections provide an opportunity for the people to have a voice and vote to remove incompetent and corrupt judges from their post. This provides accountability to the voters and keeps courts fair and impartial without allowing politics into the courtroom. Voters should consider whether judges are fit to serve by evaluating their body of work, not whether they have angered a particular interest group. When these non-partisan retention elections become political battlefields, they do not function the way they were intended to function.

The attack on the Supreme Court suffers from numerous deficiencies. The basic premise is an attempt to introduce politics into the Tennessee Supreme Court and appoint Justices that have political ideologies that prevent them from being a fair and impartial tribunal of the law.

One of the most puzzling deficiencies found in the attack placed on Chief Justice Wade, Justice Clark, and Justice Lee is that the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee, which Senate Speaker Ramsey himself helped appoint, has overwhelmingly recommended that each of the Supreme Court Justices be retained. According to Justice Sharon Lee, the Committee’s recommendation to retain these Justices is “an extensive process of several months.” The process includes all of the following in the decision process: the Governor, the legislature, the independent members of the Committee, and the voters. The voters of Tennessee have retained all of these Justices every time they have stood for election, and the Justices have worked within the Tennessee Court system to ensure access to justice for all Tennesseans.

It is crucial that Tennessee maintains a fair and impartial Supreme Court. Politics belong in the legislature, not in the Tennessee court system. When Supreme Court races truly turn on who can spend more money, the fact that you are a Democrat or Republican is not what is most affected. The independence from such corruption and the self-sustaining integrity of the judicial branch suffers. Former Supreme Court of the United States Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said it best when she stated, “the last thing you want to worry about is (when you go into court) whether the judge is more accountable to a campaign contributor or an ideological group than the law.”

Ron Ramsey has attacked our judicial system at every turn, especially when it is politically convenient. He has made it clear that he has little faith in the very people that elected him and help pay his salary when it comes to jury trials. Recently, he stated, “you’re not going to be punished by some jury that gives you some exorbitant return on the lawsuit.” He quickly forgets that this so-called “some jury” is made up by citizens and residents of Tennessee that swear an oath to serve their fellow man without the expectation of making a career out of their service, like so many politicians. Nor do they engage in unfair attack ads to defend their paycheck. Instead, they do their job and return to their lives with little compensation but much satisfaction.

The members of “some jury”, as he refers to them, are actually Tennesseans over the age of 18 who have not been convicted of a felony. These people give their time to serve one of the foundations of this state and this country. Ramsey might want to consider what “some politician” named Thomas Jefferson once said: “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Or consider the statement made by James Madison: “[T]rial by jury in civil cases is as essential to secure the liberty of the people as any one of the pre-existent rights of nature.”