Retention of judges should not become ‘political’

Published 8:38 am Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Republicans at both the state and national level are poised for what appears to be a collaborative effort to give their party control of Tennessee’s judicial branch of government, just as it controls the executive and legislative branches.
It’s one thing for state political parties to become dominant in issues, but it’s another thing when lobbyists outside the state try to decide the issues for local folks.
The Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee last week announced a nationwide “Judicial Fairness Initiative” to put more conservative judges on state Supreme Courts.
In August, the three Democratic appointees on the Tennessee Supreme Court face a yes-no vote on whether they should be retained. They are: Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Connie Clark and Justice Sharon Lee.
If they are rejected, the Republican Gov. Bill Haslam will name their successors.
This year 38 states conduct elections for their Supreme Court, including partisan and non-partisan contested elections and up-or-down judicial retention votes. Some mudslinging attack ads and Super PAC money as well as national politics are sure to invade the Tennessee race.
In fact, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’ office has put together a plan to oust the sitting justices – a plan that even some Republicans fear is going too far.
Earlier this year, a commission – one that the lieutenant governor himself helped appoint – declared they were good qualified justices who should be retained.
But Ramsey’s strategy document suggests that the three justices could be portrayed as “soft on crime” and anti-business. It’s a message that he’s taken to people in the business community who could raise millions of dollars for a campaign to oust the three judges.
The move is seen as injecting politics into a branch of government that is supposed to be unbiased and independent. Outside money nor outside groups should play a dominant role in influencing who sits on state supreme courts.
This coalescing campaign to only elect Republicans to judgeships seeks to intimidate our state judges into becoming accountable to money and ideologies instead of the constitution and the law. It poses some of the gravest threats yet to fair and impartial justice in not only Tennessee, but in America.
Courts and judges are supposed to be insulated from politics.
It’s fair to ask whether judges elected in today’s political climate can protect citizens’ rights fairly and resolve disputes without being intimidated by the special interest groups that use campaign money to influence their decisions. In the end, we want judges to decide cases based on the law and the Constitution, and not based on who gave them money.
There should be boundaries that keep money and political pressure from interfering with the rule of the law.
Some commonsense measures need to be put in place to help ensure that citizens feel confident that their judges are accountable to the law and the Constitution, not to special interests.

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