Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said Wednesday that he has no intentions of “sitting on the sidelines” while members of the state Supreme Court try and earn yes votes in August’s retention election.
Ramsey’s remarks came a day after Chief Justice Gary Wade, who Ramsey calls a friend, said during a session with the Bristol Herald Courier editorial board that the speaker of the Senate and other Republicans in Nashville are actively campaigning to have him and two other judges defeated at the polls next month.
Wade said the tactics are “disconcerting” and “disturbing because it sort of changes the rules in the middle of the game.”
Ramsey, of Blountville, said the retention election flies under the radar of voters because it takes place every eight years. He said the fact that voters are even involved makes the judges fair game in the political arena.
“Do you honestly think that Gary would have been sitting in front of you all in Bristol [on Tuesday] if there was not a retention election going on and I hadn’t brought attention to it?” the lieutenant governor asked.
“They’ve always perceived that a positive grade before a bunch of lawyers on an evaluation committee that always says that they do a great job is enough; surprise, surprise. We are getting our side of the story out and let the voters decide if they deserve to stay or not.
“You would think what they really want is a lifetime appointment. I really don’t understand the whole concept here of why they’re upset because there is actually going to be an election. …It’s like they’ve been locked up in an ivory tower for years and didn’t know the election existed.”
In a meeting of the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission in January, Wade and fellow Justices Connie Clark and Sharon Lee received positive marks, leading to their placement on the August ballot.
A Tennessee Bar Association poll conducted last month found that nine out of 10 lawyers across the state highly recommend retaining the three judges. Incoming TBA President Jonathan Steen said the findings were made public to provide a better measure of the judges than partisan labels.
Wade, Clark and Lee have served eight years under a provision created in 1972 by a Democratic legislature that Ramsey said was done to prevent incoming Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn from making appointments to the court. The trio was appointed during the administration of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Ramsey also repeated a claim he made earlier this year that the court is soft on crime because of the 72 convicted death row inmates who remain in prison, including two convicted murderers from Sullivan County.
Leonard Edward Smith, 53, agreed to a life sentence in 2012 after a 2011 ruling by Wade and the Supreme Court granted him a new trial because his defense attorneys never tried to have a judge recused from a previous trial. That judge had been a prosecutor in a case in which Smith was convicted of robbery.
Smith was convicted in the 1984 murders of Novella Webb and John “Shorty” Pierce, two store clerks at a Sullivan County convenience store who were shot to death.
The court also granted a stay in the execution of convicted murderer Nickolus Johnson in April. Johnson was found guilty of killing Bristol, Tenn., police Officer Mark Vance in 2007.
“Wade has said publicly that the philosophy of the death penalty is still being debated. This is not about the philosophy, this is about enforcing the law that the legislature passed,” Ramsey said.
“Smith’s case was overturned for the fourth time. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The whole campaign has taken on a life of its own because someone has shed some light on their record. They think they are above all this.
“I’m being accused of bringing partisan politics into this when, indisputably, this whole system of choosing judges was created out of partisan politics. I think their arguments are baseless, but I’m not going to stand on the sidelines and just say nothing when I see these things happening.”
Two of the five justices are retiring. If Wade and the other two are not retained in August, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, could have five appointments to make to the Supreme Court later this year.
Haslam said in May that he would not join Ramsey in a public campaign against the three judges and called the lieutenant governor’s actions “dangerous.”
Ramsey said he knows Haslam will select “good judges” in the future, but the next selection is up to the people of Tennessee.
“The governor wants to sit on the sidelines because he’s going to have to make selections to the court,” Ramsey said. “He doesn’t want to be self-serving, so he doesn’t want to be involved, but in the end, I’m sure he won’t be disappointed.”
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