Tennessee Supreme Court justices win after GOP campaign against them

Tennessee Supreme Court justices win after GOP campaign against them
Backed by supporters, Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade gives a news conference about the retention of three Tennessee Supreme Court justices in Blountville, Tenn., on Tuesday. (David Grace / AP)

Tennessee voters rejected an effort Thursday to oust three state Supreme Court justices who were under attack by conservatives for being too liberal for the state.

Chief Justice Gary R. Wade and Justices Cornelia A. Clark and Sharon G. Lee all retained new eight-year terms on the state's highest court.


Wade and Lee won with 57% of the vote. Clark won with 56% of the vote, according to the Tennessee secretary of state's office.

Lew Conner, a trial lawyer who was formerly a special chief justice for the Tennessee Supreme Court from 1980 to 1981, said the results made him a "happy camper."

"I was scared to death that the voters would be misled by all those unbelievably incorrect ads," Conner said. "It was a ruthless campaign by those who attempted to unseat the justices."

The justices were all appointed by the Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and were being targeted by conservative groups in and out of Tennessee. Since the retention election system was put in place in the state in 1971, only one justice has been voted out.

According to the Indiana Law Review, only seven judges have ever been voted off the bench in the 19 states that use the retain-or-replace election system. Three of them were justices in Iowa, who were ousted after a controversial decision affirming same-sex marriage in 2009.

The big Tennessee push against the justices came from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican and head of the state Senate, who provided the blueprint for the campaign to replace the three, accusing them of being soft on crime and anti-business.

Ramsey’s efforts drew national groups into the fight, like the Charles and David Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity, State Government Leadership Foundation and the Republican State Leadership Committee.

After the election, Ramsey congratulated the justices in a statement, saying the election allowed the citizens of Tennessee to gain "a fuller appreciation of the role of the judiciary in the state of Tennessee."

"For the first time in decades, we had a real election for the Supreme Court. Our Supreme Court justices traveled the state of Tennessee this summer meeting Tennesseans and learning things about our state that you can't find in any law book," he said. "Because of that, more Tennesseans than ever know the names of our Supreme Court justices and are aware they have a role in deciding who sits on the high court."

In all, more than $1.4 million was spent on the retention election.

The Tennessee Forum, an anti-retention group funded by a Ramsey's political action committee, spent an estimated $474,150 on television ads to unseat the justices, according to campaign disclosures. The State Government Leadership Foundation also spent $63,390 on television ads. Americans for Prosperity spent money on an anti-retention radio campaign, but did not disclose their expenditures.

"The people of this state have spoken and the 144-year reign of this liberal Supreme Court continues," Tennessee Forum president Susan Kaestner wrote in a statement on Facebook. "But the fight goes on. More voters, with more information than ever, entered the voting booth and chose 'replace.' That's a win for the electoral process in Tennessee."

The biggest spenders on television ads were the justices, who spent an estimated $579,870 in joint ads defending themselves. Tennesseans for Fair Courts, a group formed by a local attorney, also spent $215,840 on TV ads to retain the judges, and Wade funded $94,980 worth of TV ads.

“Arms race spending has no place in a Supreme Court election, said Alicia Bannon of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks judicial elections across the country.

Bannon said the attempts to influence the election on both sides with money were "deeply troubling."

"A lot of the justices' contributions were from lawyers," she said. "You don't want judges worrying about what their contributors will think when they make decisions in court."

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