Mickey Barker is a former chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court whose political affiliation before his appointment in 1998 by then GOP Governor Don Sundquist was unmistakably Republican. A Chattanooga native, Barker consistently received high marks in judicial evaluations and was twice approved overwhelmingly for retention by the state's voters under the current "Tennessee Plan."
He retired in 2006 but has kept a watchful eye on the state's judicial ferment.
And so it is telling, given his political background and his record of distinguished service on the bench, that Barker finds "frightening" the current efforts by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and other legislative Republicans to politicize Tennessee's Supreme Court and turn it into what Barker calls a "partisan branch of government."
Ramsey and crew, abetted by right-wing donors from elsewhere, including the billionaire Koch brothers of Wichita, Kansas, have organized a well-funded campaign to get Tennessee voters to reject three justices in this year's statewide retention elections. The Justices — Cornelia Clark, Sharon Lee, and current Chief Justice Gary Wade — happen to have been appointed by former Governor Phil Bredesen, who, though well-known to be politically conservative, was a Democrat.
That's enough in Ramsey's eyes to damn the three justices up for retention, though two of them — Wade and Lee — hail from the same highly Republican corner of East Tennessee as Ramsey himself and, before their appointment, had numerous GOP associations there. Ramsey has been quoted as saying he "refuses" to believe that there aren't capable Republican lawyers who could serve as well as Democrats on the state's high court. As if that were the point.
Governor Bill Haslam has appointed two Republicans to fill vacancies in recent years, but the governor, who would have the duty to appoint replacements for Clark, Lee, and Wade in the case of their rejection, has made it clear he wants no part of the current anti-retention campaign.
Haslam feels constrained by his position from commenting, but former Chief Justice Barker is not so hindered. Here's what he recently told Andy Sher of his hometown's Chattanooga Times-Free Press: "We have three branches of government. Each is to be co-equal and each is to be separate. Two of those branches are political branches — the legislative and the executive. And the judicial branch is nonpolitical. ... I am very disappointed that our present legislative branch is apparently seeking to dominate all three branches. We've never had that in my lifetime in Tennessee, and it would be a real shame to see that occur."
The three beleaguered justices have been forced into a barnstorming tour of sorts to raise enough support and money to counter the well-funded purge efforts of Ramsey and his out-of-state allies. To our gratification, Clark, Lee, and Wade were welcomed by a generous turnout of area lawyers at the Racquet Club last Thursday and by the formal endorsement of Mayor A C Wharton on Friday morning.
On August 7th, they deserve the endorsement of Shelby County voters, too — regardless of party. Interpreting the law is — or should be — non-political.