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Justices Say They're Defending 'Independence' Of Courts

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Justices Say They're Defending 'Independence' Of Courts

By Phil Williams. CREATED May 27, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three state Supreme Court justices say they're in a battle to defend the independence of Tennessee courts.

Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Sharon Lee and Justice Connie Clark could soon face an effort to kick them off the state's highest court during the August election.

That effort is being orchestrated by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has been trying to convince business groups to put up the money to oust the justices. His hope: to put staunch Republicans in their place.

They sat down for an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"Lt. Gov. Ramsey says you can have fair and impartial courts with people who are appointed by Republicans. What's wrong with that?" we asked.

"Well, Justice is neither Democrat nor Republican. It's all about the rule of law," Wade answered.

Clark said she fears that "if justice can actually be for sale in Tennessee and if someone can actually take over the judicial branch of government, then we end the opportunity for independence."

In fact, outside groups who targeted a North Carolina justice with what was widely viewed as a misleading ad have been in contact with Ramsey's office.

His own presentation -- first provided to NewsChannel 5 Investigates -- suggests lines of attack against the three justices who were appointed by former Governor Phil Bredesen.

"What was your reaction when you first saw this?" we asked.

"Well, I'm troubled by the partisan attack on our judicial system," Lee said. "Politics has no place in the courtroom."

Ramsey's presentation suggested using two death penalty cases where the justices sent the cases back to lower courts because of mistakes made during the trials. His goal: to make the case that the justices are "soft on crime."

Lee noted, "We've reviewed many death penalty cases during our term on the court and for every seven cases we've reviewed, we've upheld the death penalty in six of those cases."

Wade added, "I wish I could tell you that's because we are hard on crime, tough on crime. But the truth is that we simply call the balls and the strikes as they were pitched."

Ramsey's presentation also lists several business-related cases -- and he admits trying to recruit corporations who lost some of those cases to get behind the campaign to unseat the justices. Among them: nursing home giant NHC.

"I'm concerned," Clark said, "about the generalization that a case has a business side and an anti-business side.... We're not choosing a side when we render a decision based upon the law and the facts of that case."

In fact, a commission that the lieutenant governor himself helped appoint found that all three were good justices who should be retained.

"The vast majority of our opinions are unanimous where we all five agree on the result," Lee said.

"The Democratic and Republican appointees?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Absolutely -- because partisan politics again doesn't have any place in our courtroom."

Wade said that his "major concern is the potential of out-of-state money, big money coming into the state of Tennessee, basically to tell the people within this jurisdiction how they ought to vote."

While the outside money sought by Ramsey has yet to appear, the justices are taking no chances, participating in fundraisers across the state where lawyers from both sides of the aisle have contributed several hundred thousand dollars to help fend off the effort to vote them out.

Which has led conservative websites to turn around and accuse the justices themselves of injecting big money into the campaign.

"We would rather not be in this position," the chief justice said.

But if the attack does materialize, the justices say they trust Tennesseans will do what's right.

"They know they need fair and impartial courts," Lee said. "They know that when they go into a courtroom, they want a judge that's fair and who is impartial."

Much of the lieutenant governor's efforts appear to be driven by the fact that the Supreme Court appoints the state attorney general -- and Ramsey was upset by the fact that the current attorney general Bob Cooper did not join other Republicans in filing lawsuits to stop Obamacare.

The justices said that, if they are re-elected, they will conduct an open process to find the best attorney available to represent the state -- regardless of his or her politics.

Ramsey, on the other hand, wants a Republican AG -- and he argues that most Tennesseans also want that job to go to a Republican.

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.