3 Tenn. High Court justices face threat of ouster - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

3 Tenn. High Court justices face threat of ouster

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

The makeup of the Tennessee Supreme Court could be in for a drastic change if three of the five current members are ousted by voters in August.

The trio are all Democratic appointees and have become the target of an ouster campaign, spearheaded by the most powerful man in the state legislature. His mission funded by out of state PAC money.

When he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010, part of Ron Ramsey's platform was to reshape the process of choosing state supreme court appointees. He didn't win the governorship but the lieutenant governor didn't forget about his vision for the court.

On the tree of governmental structure, where the executive and the legislative branches often overlap in fights over power, members of the judicial arm dutifully serve as the system's steadfast legal umpires.

"Alexander Hamilton, years before we adopted our Constitution, said the judiciary is the least dangerous because basically they just call the balls and strikes," said Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade.

"We are the last independent group in our state who can really protect our citizens," added Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Sharon Lee.

However, at a coffee and donuts gathering at the University of Memphis Law School on Friday, Chief Justice Wade and Justice Lee used somber tones to tell a group of lawyers and judges from the 30th judicial district, they along with absent Justice Cornelia Clark, may need protection themselves at the ballot box in August.

"There is a coordinated effort to target them to get them off the Supreme Court and I know that's it's being headed up by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey," said Dr. Steve Mulroy, University of Memphis law professor. "My understanding also is there's outside Tennessee money involved."

It's no secret since he took over the reins of the Tennessee Senate, the bombastic Lt. Gov. Ramsey has wanted to change the game and the "umps" in the selection process of the state's top justices. Three of the five, all Democrats, are up for a yes or no "retention" election, which by law, comes in eight-year cycles after their appointments by the governor.

Chief Justice Wade, Justice Clark and Justice Lee were former Gov. Phil Bredesen's choices. So, far current Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has placed two on the high court, including of U of M Law School graduate Holly Kirby, who will replace retiring Justice Janice Holder beginning Sept. 1.

The justices know what Lt. Gov. Ramsey has planned is more than veiled threats.

"I think our challenge is to protect the independence of the judiciary," said Chief Justice Wade. "We're accountable to the people and this is the people's office."

But, can it be bought? For flowery words aside, the targeted judges know Ramsey's efforts to turn the court into a judicial "red state" are monetarily fueled by the bottomless pockets of conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.

"The Koch brothers and their Americans For Prosperity PAC have unlimited funds at their disposal," Dr. Mulroy said. "So, this outside Tennessee money can be pouring in targeting three supreme court justices for no other reason that they happen to be Democratic."

"People have to be able to trust the court system and believe in their integrity," Justice Lee said. "In their honesty, in our devotion to the rule of the law, if we lose that, we lose something very vital and very important about our system."

Only once in Tennessee history has a state supreme court justice been removed from the bench by a retention vote. Former Justice Penny White was ousted  by voters in 1996 after a Nashville newspaper started a "no" vote campaign claiming White was soft on crime.

At the time of her ouster the court was composed of five justices who were all Democrats.

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