It was just a little over a month ago that Tennesseans did themselves proud by decisively rejecting a campaign, led by Republican Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, to purge three state Supreme Court justices — Gary Wade, Connie Clark, and Sharon Lee — in a retention election.
Although Ramsey did his best to malign the three for this or that alleged defect, the real offense of these distinguished jurists was that they had been appointed to office by a former Democratic governor, Phil Bredesen. The state's voters obviously discerned this purely partisan motive in the purge campaign and voted by a 2-to-1 margin to retain the justices, who won't be vulnerable for another eight years. So far, so good.
Ramsey, in his campaign against the three justices, had charged, among other things, that — with state Attorney General Robert Cooper coming up for reappointment or replacement in the wake of the election — they would be unlikely to appoint a state attorney general who would enlist in the national GOP's ongoing legal vendetta against the Affordable Care Act (aka "Obamacare"), as Cooper had declined to do. The justices, quite properly, dismissed the charge as irrelevant to their oath of office, which requires them to avoid prejudgments and to remain free of political motives (indeed, the fact that supporters, as well as foes, kept referring to them as "Democrats" was an improper stretch).
There was a political sequel of sorts to the retention election. The three newly retained Bredesen appointees, along with two others who had been appointed by GOP Governor Bill Haslam, now had the duty of deciding whether to reappoint Cooper or name a replacement. Justice Lee, who in the wake of the retention election was named chief justice by her colleagues, made a public statement offering reassurance that politics would not play a role in the appointment decision. Coincidentally or not, though, the eventual choice of the justices was Herbert Slatery, who served Haslam in the same role that Cooper had served Bredesen, that of chief legal adviser to the governor.
The appointment stuck in the craw of state Representative Craig Fitzhugh (R-Ripley), the Democrats' leader in the state House, who praised Cooper for his achievements as AG and professed disappointment "that our Supreme Court has capitulated to Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and the very special interest groups that tried to replace our justices just one short month ago." Continued Fitzhugh: "While the people have shown they can be trusted to preserve the integrity of the courts, the Supreme Court justices have shown they are too susceptible to political pressure."
Was Fitzhugh too harsh? Well, there was a reaction from the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), a Washington-based lobby that describes itself as "the only national organization whose mission is electing Republicans to the Office of Attorney General." Said RAGA in a press release: "We are very pleased by the appointment of Mr. Slatery," adding, after some boilerplate praise for Slatery's legal prowess: "The appointment of Herbert Slatery brings the total number of Republican AGs across the country to 25."
We hope we — and Fitzhugh — are wrong, but it's beginning to look like the defenders of nonpartisan justice in Tennessee, having won a battle only last month, have run up the white flag of surrender this month.