It was this time four years ago that Mayor Bill Haslam, now the governor, and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who was also lieutenant governor back then, were campaigning against each other. Now they seem to be on opposite sides of another campaign. And the campaign may just help you decide how to vote on a critical matter in November.
The campaign I’m speaking of is actually two intertwined campaigns. Gov. Haslam and Lt. Gov. Ramsey both support Amendment 2 to the state’s constitution. Haslam is spearheading a campaign to pass Amendment 2. Ramsey, on the other hand, is spearheading another campaign that bears on the pros and cons of Amendment 2. Haslam says Ramsey will “muddy the waters” in connection with his campaign for Amendment 2.
So what is Amendment 2 and what are these “campaigns” about, on which two of our state’s top political leaders seem to differ? Amendment 2 will determine how we decide who will sit on our state’s Supreme Court. The two campaigns highlight different ways Amendment 2 can be viewed by voters.
The Facts about Amendment 2
The language in our state constitution that would be changed by the amendment currently says the judges of the Supreme Court “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.” Of course, we’ve not had contested Supreme Court elections in years. Instead, the governor appoints someone to the court and then, at the next election, that person runs unopposed in a yes-no retention election.
Amendment 2 would modify the current appointment-retention election system to add some accountability on the front end of the appointment process by giving the legislature the authority within a certain period of time to reject a gubernatorial nominee. That is certainly an improvement over the current process.
The Voters’ Choices
Now, if a person wants to have contested Supreme Court elections, he or she should vote against the amendment and hope that legislators will assume a “no” vote means voters want contested elections. However, there’s no guarantee a majority of them will think that way. After personally fighting over this issue at the state Capitol for 20 years, I can assure you that many legislators who support Amendment 2 will fight hard against any legislative proposal for contested elections.
But I suspect there will be a number of voters who fall into a “middle” group—some will not want to trust the legislature to return to contested elections, and some will want to avoid contested elections. So what do they do?
The Determinative Issue
These voters will have to decide whether there should be some form of judicial accountability after the governor and the legislature agree to put someone on the court. If the answer is “yes,” then the version of accountability Amendment 2 offers voters is a yes-no judicial retention election. These voters must, therefore, determine whether retention elections can provide the kind of accountability they want.
That is where Ramsey’s “campaign” and Haslam’s concerns about it get interesting.
Ramsey is raising money (on his own time) and making presentations to different organizations to convince voters not to retain the three Supreme Court judges that will be up for a retention vote in August. According to statements made to various media outlets, Ramsey thinks that campaigning against a judge’s retention is a perfectly fine thing to do.
In fact, Ramsey thinks the campaign can demonstrate to voters that retention elections can be an effective means of judicial accountability. That, he thinks, will help Haslam’s campaign to pass the amendment.
But the Governor apparently disagrees. He thinks Ramsey’s campaign muddies the water by injecting into the judiciary the “politics” that he hopes to avoid with the approval of an appointment-retention election.
And therein lies the rub. Are retention elections supposed to be meaningful or simply “for show?”
Perhaps the best way for voters to let Haslam and Ramsey know which side of this question they are on come November will be whether they vote to retain or reject the judges up for “election” in August. Kicking these judges off the bench should send a clear message to our state’s politicians that voters want some kind of meaningful ongoing judicial accountability.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.