Three Democratic Justices Preparing for Removal Effort

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NASHVILLE -- Three Democratic state Supreme Court justices, anticipating efforts urging voters to vote against giving them new terms on Aug. 7, are collecting money to counter such a campaign if it develops.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey says he does expect such an effort, at least from the national Republican Attorneys General Association and perhaps others. The Senate speaker said he will be playing an informal "educational role," urging Republican voters in his speaking appearances to vote "no" on the three Democrats.

Chief Justice Gary Wade has already raised $166,699 for his retention re-election campaign. Justices Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee have also set up campaign accounts, though Clark so far has funded it with just a $3,800 contribution of her own money and Lee has raised just $9,550.

In past retention elections, the three did not raise or spend any money whatsoever, according to Registry of Election Finance records. Only one Tennessee Supreme Court justice has ever lost a retention election -- Penny White in 1996.

A group of prominent lawyers, meanwhile, have scheduled a May 14 fundraiser to help the justices. An invitation letter says they have "credible information" that more than $1 million in "out-of-state money will be spent against our three justices in an effort to exert influence over our Tennessee Supreme Court."

"There is absolutely no reasonable justification for such a campaign: all three justices were strongly recommended for retention by the diverse and bipartisan Tennessee Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, and reports are that the 'no'-vote efforts are expressly grounded solely on partisan grounds," the letter says.

The extent of an organized effort to defeat the three judges seems to be an open question. Ramsey said in an interview Monday he believes RAGA will be involved, having discussed the possibility in his role as leader of the Republican Lieutenant Governors Association, an affiliated group under the umbrella organization called the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Ramsey said RAGA sees the Tennessee situation as a "relatively inexpensive" way of adding a Republican attorney general to the group's ranks. Tennessee's attorney general -- currently Democrat Bob Cooper -- is elected by the Supreme Court. If a majority of the Supreme Court justices are Republicans, it is reasoned, it is likely they will choose a Republican to replace Cooper, whose term will expire Aug. 31 along with those of all five Supreme court justices.

In contrast, Ramsey said Republicans "just spent $8 (million) to $10 million" trying to elect an attorney general in Virginia and lost.

Two other current justices, Janice Holder and William Koch, are not seeking new terms. Gov. Bill Haslam has already named their replacements -- Holly Kirby and Jeff Bivens, respectively -- and they will take office Sept. 1 and serve until 2016, when they will face a retention election of their own. Bivens and Kirby are Republicans.

Officials of the Tennessee Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity, both mentioned elsewhere as possibly becoming involved in a campaign against the three incumbent judges, say there are currently no such plans.

Brent Leatherwood, executive director of the state GOP, said the party is presently focused on its "Red to the Roots" campaign to elect more Republicans at the local level, including support of local judges running as Republicans in 24 of the state's 31 judicial districts. …