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VOL. 129 | NO. 151 | Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tennessee Supreme Court Races See Spending Spike

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

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NASHVILLE (AP) – An influx of campaign spending on three Tennessee Supreme Court seats has transformed what is traditionally a sleepy affair into a hard-fought campaign that has raised questions about the role of partisan politics in the judiciary.

Voters going to the polls in Thursday's primary election will also decide the nominees for the U.S. Senate, House, governor and a slew of state legislative candidates. But the down-ballot question about whether to retain or reject three justices originally appointed by a Democratic governor has become the subject of heavy television advertising and other campaigning.

The governor appoints justices and voters decide whether to keep them for full eight-year terms. Only one justice has ever lost. If even one of the incumbent justices is defeated on Thursday, the replacement would likely give Republicans control the highest court in Tennessee, which is the only state where justices name the attorney general.

Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who has spearheaded the effort to oust the three justices, last week disclosed giving $425,000 from his political action committee to bankroll a series of television ads painting Justices Gary Wade, Connie Clark and Sharon Lee as liberal supporters of President Barack Obama's health care law who are soft on crime and capital punishment.

The Republican State Leadership Committee is also spending about $400,000 on efforts to defeat the justices, said spokeswoman Jill Bader. Meanwhile, the incumbents have raised close to $800,000.

Vanderbilt University law professor Tracey George said the spending on the retention election is higher than usual for Tennessee, but well below what has been spent on Supreme Court and attorney general races in other states.

"You can, for a fairly small sum, have an incredible return on your investment in terms of impact on policy and law in the state," she said.

The ads have drawn heavy criticism from the justices' supporters, including some prominent Republicans like former Chief Justice William "Mickey" Barker, who argue that the justices have not addressed federal health care issues and that they have upheld the vast majority of death penalty cases before them.

"I use this word very advisably: They are lies," Barker said in a phone interview. "And I'm sorry to say that our lieutenant governor is the main culprit. All of it goes back to him."

"The people who are running these opposition things are extremists who have political ambitions and they want to control the whole state of Tennessee," he said.

Ramsey's contributions came as a surprise after he declared in May that he wouldn't take a financial stake in the judicial race.

A spokesman referred reporters to a statement issued by Ramsey on Friday that said that he had decided to make the contributions because the justices had hired Democratic operatives and had raised money with the help of trial lawyers.

"I cannot in good conscience sit on the sidelines while Obama operatives distort the record of this liberal Supreme Court and attack the reputations of those who oppose them," Ramsey said in the statement.

Carol Andrews, a longtime Democrat who is working for the justices, dismissed Ramsey's justification as a pretense for what she called his effort to "buy himself a court."

Republican attorney Lew Conner, a vocal critic of Ramsey's push to oust the justices, said he and other attorneys in the prominent Nashville law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, were taken aback to see him send money from his political PAC to the judicial campaign. Waller has given Ramsey's PAC $14,000 in the last two years.

"If he took that money and spent that trying to throw the justices out, I think I can speak for all of our people in saying we would be horrified," Conner said.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam would name any replacements to the high court, but has declined to weigh on the ouster effort. But the governor's father and brother, Jim and Jimmy Haslam, have both given money to Justice Wade, with whom the family once owned a minor league baseball team.

Jim Haslam, the governor's father, also gave $10,000 to Ramsey's Raampac committee in January.

"He gave to Raampac in support of Gov. Ramsey, not focused on any particular issue," family spokesman Tom Ingram said. "And he gave to Judge Wade out of long-term respect and friendship."

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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