Three Tennessee Supreme Court justices kept their seats Thursday night, surviving a well-funded Republican attempt to oust them for supposedly being too liberal.
Voters handed another eight-year term to Chief Justice Gary Wade and Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark on Thursday, with each winning about 56 percent of the ballots cast. All three were appointed by former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), essentially giving Democrats a majority on the five-member court.
Under Tennessee's system, voters decide whether to retain justices rather than have them run for re-election against challengers. Generally, the contests aren't controversial; only once since the system was put in place in 1971 has a justice been replaced.
But this year, Republicans, spearheaded by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R), tried to change the balance and create vacancies that the GOP governor would then be able to fill. Losing any one of the Democrat-appointed justices would have given Republicans a majority on the court.
Ramsey spent at least $425,000 from his own political action committee on the effort. National groups such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity also joined in. The justices' opponents tried to paint them as "liberal on crime" and hostile to business.
Overall, more than $1 million was spent on these three races by those for and against retention, according to the group Justice at Stake.
"Tennessee has joined a growing club of states where courts face a tidal wave of spending and political pressure," said Bert Brandenburg, the group's executive director, in a recent statement. "As judicial campaigns grow worse, money and partisan interests can't be allowed to undercut impartial justice."
A centerpiece of Ramsey's pitch to voters about why the justices needed to be removed focused on two death penalty cases in which the justices spared the men from the ultimate punishment. But The Tennessean called it "a simplistic picture of two complex capital punishment cases" and a prominent GOP attorney in the state said Ramsey's presentation was "replete with misstatements of fact, incomplete statements of fact and a total failure to in any way represent the true picture of any of these things."
In May, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said he saw "danger" in targeting state Supreme Court justices, noting he would not be part of those efforts. At the same time, however, he also said he would not ask Ramsey to stop.
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