Are Tennessee’s Courts for Sale?

After last night’s election, it is clear that the efforts of the out-of-state group that was attempting to oust three Tennessee Supreme Court justices have failed despite the group’s aggressive campaign. Tennesseans did in fact vote to retain Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Cornelia “Connie” Clark, as well as Justice Sharon Lee. However, according to recent polling numbers, the justices only secured roughly fifty seven percent (57%) of the votes, which is one of the smallest margins of victory in the history of Tennessee’s retention elections. While a victory nonetheless, last night’s election has drawn attention to a serious issue facing Tennessee’s courts-the role of politics in our judicial system.

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey was one of the most vocal supporters of the effort to remove the Supreme Court justices, but he wasn’t alone. The movement had a significant number of financial backers. Ostensibly the group’s supporters wanted to oust the justices because they are “liberal,” “soft on crime,” and “supporters of Obamacare.” However, it appears that Ramsey and other group members were merely trying to get rid of current court members in order to have successors appointed who would be more sympathetic to their causes.

A prime example is that of National HealthCare Corp. (NHC). NHC owns and operates a number of nursing home facilities across our state and was one of the group’s backers. NHC donated $25,000 in June alone. Interestingly, NHC is a frequent fixture in Tennessee’s civil courts, as it must defend the many abuse and neglect lawsuits filed against it each year. Needless to say, our courts do not always rule in their favor, and the corporation has a clear motive to shake up the make-up of the high court.

This is not, however, the way our judicial system was set up to operate. Our retain/replace elections were intended to be a check on our judges based on their actual job performance and whether or not they were upholding the Tennessee Constitution fair and impartially. We do not want the giants of the nursing industry to have the power to remove qualified and respected jurists merely because they have the money and influence to do so. Fortunately though the state’s voters proved that, in the words of Justice Connie Clark, “justice is not for sale in Tennessee.”

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