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Supreme Court Opponents Refuse To Identify Source Of Funds

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Supreme Court Opponents Refuse To Identify Source Of Funds

By Phil Williams. CREATED Jun 25, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A new group that's trying to help Republicans take control of Tennessee's Supreme Court says it's none of your business where they're getting their money.

That group may be the first hint of so-called "dark money" in the battle for the state's high court.

The group, Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability, professes to be a non-partisan, non-profit organization, but NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered serious questions about some of their claims.

"Right now, Phil, the Tennessee judiciary is not a democracy -- it's a hypocrisy," said TNJA President Grant Everett Starrett. 

Starrett and J. Ammon Smartt are two Republican lawyers who make up Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability. They are part of the organized opposition to three Democratic appointees to the Tennessee Supreme Court who face a vote in August over whether they should be retained.

Retired investment banker Mark Gill also helped form the group, and Gill has been working with Republicans on plans for a Senate hearing this week that, lawmakers say, will also focus on the same issue of  "judicial accountability."

"We have a serious problem in this state with four of the five Supreme Court justices being anti-free market," Gill argued in a 2011 interview posted on the YouTube page of Lipscomb University's College of Business.

As to who's funding them, Starrett said, "we have no plans to disclose who our donors are."

Starrett and Smartt said that their group was intentionally set up as what the Internal Revenue Service considers a "social welfare organization," which means they don't have to tell.

"As a 501(c)(4), Phil, we are not advocating whether or not someone should vote for or against retention," Smartt said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "You put out a news release saying that voters should vote against these justices."

"I don't recall that being in any of our news releases," Smartt replied.

That news release -- headlined "TNJA Exposes Partisan Democrat State Supreme Court Justices" -- concludes: "Tennesseans should vote to replace them in August."

"That was a mistake," said Starrett, a Vanderbilt law school graduate.

And while the group claims to be non-partisan, that same news release makes a number of questionable claims about the justices and their "seven deadly Democrat sins."

For example, the group Justice At Stake has hinted it may get involved in an effort to educate Tennesseans about the importance of keeping the courts independent from partisan interference.

Because its funders include a foundation set up by liberal billionaire George Soros, that's listed as one of those "deadly Democrat sins."

"You leave out the fact that a number of prominent Republicans are involved in that organization," we noted.

"In Justice at Stake?" Starrett asked.

"Yes," we answered.

"Can you name some?"

In fact, Justice at Stake includes two former Republican state Supreme Court justices. And retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner -- who was appointed by Ronald Reagan -- serves as honorary chair.

"Shouldn't you tell voters that Republicans are involved in this organization?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Look, plenty of Republicans support Democrats overall in Democrat organizations," Starrett said. "That doesn't make them, I mean, just because Taylor Swift sings at your concert doesn't make you country."

They also criticize the Tennessee justices, saying "all three judges were appointed by a Democrat and screened by a Democrat-dominated committee stacked with trial lawyers."

"The truth is that a Republican committee recently screened them and recommended that all of them should be retained," we noted.

"Ok," Starrett replied, blankly.

"But you don't say that in your news release."

"As we stated, this is their Democrat sins. We are not covering their entire biography."

And they slam Chief Justice Gary Wade, claiming that that "trial lawyers recently lauded" him as "2014  Appellate Judge of the Year."

But the group that recognized Wade is not the group that represents trial lawyers.

In fact, one of Smartt's former law partners, who defends big corporations, is a member of the very same group that honored the chief justice.

"We'd have to look into it, Phil," Starrett said.

"Why did you not look into it before you put out a news release?" we asked.

"When we saw it, we thought it was the trial lawyers organization," the TNJA president responded.

And that's why Republican and Democratic members of the legal profession have expressed concerns about efforts to take the court through old-fashioned political tactics.

"Do you feel an obligation to tell the whole truth about these justices?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"Yeah," Starrett insisted.

"But you haven't told the whole truth."

"I'll tell you something, we'll correct anything that we've put out there that's wrong."

Despite their statements urging voters to reject these three justices, the two men insisted they do not think that they have jeopardized their non-profit status.

That's because, in the murky world of campaign finance these days, they may be able to get away with it as long as more than half of their messages do not include those magic words urging voters to vote against the justices.

As for the retired investment banker, Mark Gill, the men said that he recently left their board, although they admitted they're still in contact with him and that he introduced them to another group -- the Tennessee Forum -- that's raising money for a campaign against the justices.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has learned that Gill is also pushing big business to give money to a third, out-of-state group that's also expected to campaign against the justices.

Meanwhile, Republicans are questioning whether the three Supreme Court justices have violated their own ethics rules by running a joint campaign.

A new opinion from legislative attorneys cites ethics decisions out of Florida which, Republicans claim, support their contention that it could create the appearance of an improper endorsement.

Still, we discovered that, when three Florida justices faced a similar attack two years ago, they also campaigned together.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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.