If you go to the Slate website right now, here's what you'll see at the top of the page:
You see that? That top story in the middle there? The one with the word "despicable" in it?
Yes, that's right. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's stupid, idiotic, no-good, terrible plan to convince Tennessee voters to remove three incredibly competent and respected state Supreme Court justices for no other reason than that they were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen is getting top billing on one of the most popular news sites around -- and for once, Slate isn't taking a contrarian stance.
Dahlia Lithwick, who regularly covers the federal Supreme Court for Slate, compares what Ramsey is trying to do in Tennessee with what happened in Iowa in 2010, when three justices were ousted in a retention election a year after a unanimous decision that the state constitution offered the same protections for gay couples wanting to marry as their straight compatriots. (You know, because equality and all.) Lithwick writes:
Knocking off a state supreme court justice is one of the cheapest political endeavors going. It costs a few measly million bucks to buy a judge's robe, which is vastly cheaper than a Senate campaign. But when politicians target elected judges and justices with political claims using political tactics (big money and inaccurate accusations), judges are forced to either respond like politicians or judges. Opting to do the former destroys the notion of impartial justice. Opting for the latter ends judicial careers.
In Iowa, the justices chose not to campaign for their jobs, and they lost them. But that's not happening in Tennessee. You can go over to Facebook and keep up with the non-campaign campaigns of Justices Gary Wade, Sharon Lee, and Connie Clark. You can go over to the Keep Tennessee Courts Fair website and donate money to support efforts to retain the justices. And this is pretty messed up, as Lithwick notes:
[T]he enduring lesson of the Iowa Supreme Court meltdown of 2010 is that dignified silence doesn't win elections. And so the Tennessee Bar Association is, in an admirably bipartisan fashion, getting itself organized to finance and promote a counterinitiative to keep the judicial seats as judiciously as possible. That this is bipartisan is good. That it is happening at all (lawyers raising money for the judges before whom they will appear) is a disaster.
Disastrous or not, TBA members are really, really opposed to Ramsey's efforts to screw up the highest court in the state. The organization conducted a poll for the first time EVER -- they didn't do this for tort reform, y'all, which shows what a big deal this is -- and 93 percent of TBA lawyers polled support retaining the current justices.
It's true that only 70 percent or so of Tennessee lawyers are TBA members, and it's true that every TBA member didn't respond. We should also note a group that was ostensibly formed in 2013 but still doesn't yet have a functioning website (because, you know, those things are so hard to build nowadays) calling itself "Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability" sent out a press release saying the survey results "were about as predictable as Pravda asking party members their approval rating of the Politburo." Uh, that totally makes sense?
And here's the guy who said that, Mr. Grant Everett Starrett:
No, seriously. That's his LinkedIn profile photo!
Yes, the guy leading the campaign to kick judges off the state Supreme Court just finished law school in 2012. (At Vandy, duh, because no way someone that douchey would attend UT.) Then he worked on Mitt Romney's campaign. If that wasn't bad enough, before going to law school he worked on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor.
But wait, that's not all! Starrett also thinks lawyers shouldn't have to take the bar exam, or maybe even go to law school. Why? Because "[m]ost cases are, in fact, settled, and negotiation is not a subject tested on the bar, nor even required in law schools," Starrett writes. Who needs an understanding of the law or whatever to be a lawyer?
However, even if he did pass the bar, Starrett's no lawyer. According to LinkedIn, his only work experience since Romney lost has been working to unseat judges. (Starrett's personal website states he "lives in Franklin, Tennessee, where he engages in writing, investing, and politicking," whatever that means.) Tennesseans for Judicial Accountability says it is registered as a non-profit 501(c)4, but it hasn't been around long enough for its IRS Form 990s to have made it to the internet, so there's no telling if Starrett's getting a salary for this. (If he is, we're very interested to know who's funding it.)
In any case, let's state this again: THE BRO WHO HAS A "JOB" TO GET RID OF JUDGES WHO WEREN'T APPOINTED BY A REPUBLICAN IS A RECENT LAW SCHOOL GRADUATE WHO HAS NEVER HELD A JOB AS A LAWYER.
Of course, Ramsey, the top legislator in the state, isn't a lawyer either. And this retention election nonsense is just the last in a string of crap he's tried to politicize the legal system even more than it already is. There was that time Ramsey tried to redraw all the judicial districts. And that time he and state Sen. Mike Bell tried to can everyone from the Judicial Performance Evaluation Committee in the hopes that the newly restructured committee might issue poor evaluations of so-called "liberal" judges in time for this year's retention election. (That didn't work, and all judges up for retention this year, including the three on the Supreme Court, received very high marks.)
But that's where we are, now, in Tennessee -- a place where Ramsey can boldly say that the judicial branch should be accountable to the legislative one, as the Nashville Scene reports:
"I've been accused of bringing partisan politics to an election. Think that one through, just for a second," Ramsey said at an annual Republican gala last month. "If they're elections, let's have an election."This is about, I believe, a Supreme Court that represents the values and upholds the laws that we as elected officials pass. Let's have an election. An election is a battle of ideas. One side against the other. I trust the people of the state of Tennessee to make the right decision."
But as Lithwick aptly points out in her column, partisan politics aren't even the worst of it:
If you want links to those studies she mentions, they're there over on Slate. (You really should read the whole piece anyway, because Lithwick is a much smarter legal scholar than any of us at MP.) And you should be perturbed by this. Like, really upset and pissed off. Do you want a Chief Justice like Alabama has? Because that's what Ramsey is gunning for.And that's the real problem. When judicial races turn into spending races, what suffers most is not Democrats or Republicans, but judicial independence and integrity. As has been exhaustively chronicled by one nonpartisan study after another, judges don't want to be dialing for dollars from the attorneys who litigate before them, and litigants don't want to appear before judges who dial for dollars. All of the data shows that the effect is a decline in confidence in the independence of the judiciary and a spending arms race that spirals ever more out of control. That's the paradox of course: Cynically preying on an unspecified public fear of out-of control judges will ultimate result in actual jurists who are actually compromised, either by taking money they shouldn't be taking, or making promises and pledges they are in no position to make. In either case, imaginary judicial shadiness becomes a lot more real.
But even if you're not upset, even if you're being ridiculously contrarian like our columnist Frank Cagle and you think it's not a big deal and the court set itself up for this, you should get yourself registered to vote, if you aren't already -- the deadline is July 8. And then come early voting on on July 18, or Election Day on August 7 -- yes, a Thursday, it's weird for us too -- get off your ass and go vote. Or we just can't be friends any more.