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Tennessee Supreme Court Campaign Makes History

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Tennessee Supreme Court Campaign Makes History

By Phil Williams. CREATED Aug 7, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn -- Regardless of the vote, the battle for control of Tennessee's Supreme Court will go down as the most expensive judicial campaign in Tennessee history.

More than $2 million is expected to be spent by both sides combined.

Voters had two choices: they could vote to "retain" or "replace" three incumbent justices: Connie Clark, Sharon Lee and Gary Wade.

But the race was about about much more.

It will also decide whether Republicans get a complete grip on all three branches of Tennessee government.

The effort to put the state's high court under Republican control was orchestrated by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who began with a push for big business to put up the money for a campaign to vote out the three Democratic appointees.

NewsChannel 5 asked Ramsey back in April, "Does that lend credence that big business is trying to buy the Supreme Court?"

"No, I don't want them to buy it," the Blountville Republican responded, "but I want them to be involved."

Yet, NewsChannel 5 Investigates discovered that a plan of attack put together by Ramsey's office included misleading interpretations of court cases, designed to portray the justices as "soft on crime."

"Campaigns are about telling your side of the story, which is what I'm telling," Ramsey said. "They tell their side of the story. Then the people decide."

"But are you telling the truth?" we asked.

"Yes, I'm telling the truth," Ramsey answered.

Chief Justice Gary Wade voiced the pitch of the three justices: "Justice is neither Democrat nor Republican."

Still, when the campaign began, conservatives latched onto the fact that the Court had appointed Attorney General Bob Cooper back in 2006 and Cooper had later refused to file suit over Obamacare.

In the attack ads, that argument was shorted to this: "They're liberal on crime. They advanced Obamacare in Tennessee."

NewsChannel 5 political analyst Pat Nolan says the comparison to the President was an obvious red-state tactic to try to pull the justices down.

"I think that Obama is probably the most unpopular politician in Tennessee if you poll it, and I suspect they have," Nolan said. "I think that they feel like anything they can attach to Obamacare or an Obama, it becomes an anchor."

Members of the legal community came to the justices' defense, holding fundraisers that helped them raise more than a million dollars to fend off the attacks.

The lieutenant governor also put almost half a million dollars from his own political action committee into the race -- and out-of-state groups joined the attacks. 

An online campaign, also attempting to link the justices to Obamacare, was financed by Americans for Prosperity. That's the group funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers.

"There's got to be some reason that Lt. Gov. Ramsey has put nearly $500,000 into this effort and why the Koch Brothers are involved," Justice Lee told reporters during a campaign stop on Tuesday.

Ramsey focused on the fact that the Supreme Court will pick the next attorney general.

"I want an AG that I can trust, an AG that thinks like I do," he told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

As for the lieutenant governor's stake, Nolan said, "this is big casino in my mind for Ramsey."

"If the justices win, obviously it's a big political black eye," the political analyst observed.

But if the third branch of government falls firmly under Republican control, "He may be second in the pecking order if you consider lieutenant governor and governor. But in terms of politics, he'll be the thousand-pound guerrilla up there on the hill."

Regardless of the outcome, most everyone agrees: after this campaign, Tennessee judicial races will probably never be the same again.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
NewsChannel 5 Investigates

Phil Williams

Phil Williams

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Phil Williams is chief investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5's nationally award-winning investigative team. His investigations have earned him journalism's highest honors.