State Supreme Court chief justice likens job to umpire

Becky Campbell • Jul 9, 2014 at 9:24 PM

Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade likened himself and his colleagues on the state’s highest courts to “umpires” who must call plays by the rule book and said an effort to oust him and two others is unsettling.

The rule book Wade and other appellate judges use is state law. And while not all court rulings are popular, the justices are required to follow the law in making their decisions in sometimes controversial cases.

Wade and 21 other appellate judges — three on the Supreme Court, nine on the Court of Appeals and 10 on the Court of Criminal Appeals — will be on the Aug. 7 ballot in a retention election. Two Supreme Court justices have announced their retirement and will not be on the ballot.

If Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, has his way, the Supreme Court will have a whole new look after the August election. Ramsey is leading a public charge to boot Wade and Justices Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark from the court.

Ramsey has publicly said the three — all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen — aren’t pro-business enough and “they are soft on crime.”

But the Tennessee Judges Evaluation Report, available online at www.tncourt.gov, indicates the judges are doing a good job and each one — including the three Supreme Court justices Ramsey has targeted — was recommended for retention.

The report is prepared every four years by the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission. Its nine members — some of whom were appointed by Ramsey himself — include attorneys, non-attorneys and state trial court judges.

To complete the report, the commission conducted surveys of the appellate judges, court personnel with whom they work, trial judges and attorneys across the state. The survey grades the appellate judges on a scale of one to five, with one being unacceptable and five being excellent.

The overall averages of the state’s Supreme Court justices were all near excellent. Wade scored 4.71, Lee scored 4.52 and Clark scored 4.43. A score of four indicated an “above average” rating, according to the published report.

As for Ramsey’s claim the justices were “soft on crime,” Wade said the record doesn’t show that at all, particularly with death penalty cases.

“During the last eight years, this Supreme Court has upheld a higher percentage of criminal convictions than it has at any time,” Wade said. “I can illustrate that through capital cases. Since I started on the court on Sept. 1, 2006, we have handled 21 direct appeals in cases that involved the death penalty. In 18 of those 21 cases, both the conviction and the sentence of death have been affirmed,” he said.

In a 31-page Power Point Ramsey created, he cites three examples of death penalty cases that were overturned by the justices.

Apparently what the presentation didn’t detail was the 18 death penalty cases that were upheld. One of those overturned dealt with the issue of the defendant’s mental disabilities, Wade said. The Tennessee Constitution does not allow a person with a mental disabilities to be executed. That sentence was ultimately commuted to life in prison and the defendant is still incarcerated.

“I would challenge anyone to find an eight-year period on the Supreme Court where the percentage was higher,” Wade said. “I take no credit for that, nor do my colleagues because we’re simply interpreting the law and applying the law. The credit for that record, in my opinion, goes to the trial courts.”

Outside of Ramsey’s effort, Wade said he and his colleagues are continuing to work.

“We’re still putting our hours in and making sure things are done at the Supreme Court,” he said.

In addition to that, Wade and the other justices have been speaking across the state about their jobs “trying to preserve the integrity of the judicial branch of government is free from partisan politics. That is a concern of mine as well as my colleagues,” Wade said.

He said until now, the appellate branch of the judiciary has been “devoid of intrusion from Republicans or Democrats.”

That, he said, is now being threatened by a partisan interest, or “more disconcerting to me, the prospect of out-of-state dollars coming in to encroach upon the independence of our own state to handle its own affairs.”

Wade was referring to a national organization with which Ramsey has aligned himself in the effort to remove the justices from the bench.

Attorneys across the state have expressed concern about efforts to remove the justices, and the Tennessee Bar Association, as well as a local chapter, have spoken out supporting the judiciary.

The state bar polled attorneys throughout Tennessee and found a 93 percent approval rating.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” Wade said. “Should there be a misstep in August, that process of nominating (judges) would begin again.”

Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

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