NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A confidential Republican plan, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates, outlines potential lines of attack for a campaign to oust three members of the Tennessee Supreme Court.
That plan was put together by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's office to convince big business to put up potentially millions of dollars to oust three sitting justices. It would be the first time it's ever happened on such a large scale in Tennessee -- and even some Republicans now fear that it goes too far.
"All I'm doing is informing people that you only get one chance every eight years to do this," Ramsey told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.
In August, the three Democratic appointees on the court face a yes-no vote on whether they should be retained. They are: Chief Justice Gary Wade, Justice Connie Clark and Justice Sharon Lee.
Earlier this year, a state commission -- one that the lieutenant governor himself helped appoint -- decided they were good qualified justices who should be retained.
But Ramsey's strategy document suggests that the three justices could be portrayed as "soft on crime" and anti-business. It's a message that he's taken to people in the business community who could raise millions of dollars for a campaign to oust the three judges.
"We came up with this PowerPoint to be able to show business leaders where we are," the lieutenant governor said. Ramsey explained that he "kind of laid out facts for them -- some of the cases that they've overturned, some of the decisions they've made -- and encouraged them to not to sit on the sidelines."
But Lew Conner, a prominent Republican lawyer and former appeals court judge, called Ramsey's document "an unwarranted, unjustified attack on the independence of the judiciary."
Conner said he fears that Ramsey's plan opens a Pandora's box where out-of-state groups -- potentially including the billionaire Koch Brothers -- could be dropping millions of dollars in Tennessee to influence a system of electing judges that was designed to be non-partisan.
"And unfortunately, guess where the money comes," Conner said. "From lawyers on one side or the other or from special interest groups who will spend huge sums of money in order to make sure that a judge who favors one view or another is selected."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ramsey, "Does that lend credence that big business is trying to buy the Supreme Court?"
"No," he answered, "I don't want them to buy it, but I want them to be involved."
The lieutenant governor acknowledged that a big chunk of money may come from the Republican Attorneys General Association, which gets its funding from big corporations.
That's because the Supreme Court appoints Tennessee's attorney general.
"This is an opportunity for a group like that that wants to have a Republican, pro-business, anti-crime attorney general to elect them in a relatively cheap way," Ramsey said.
In fact, the strategy document faults the court for appointing current Attorney General Bob Cooper, labeling him an "enemy of job creators" and faulting him for entering national settlements that cost corporations billions of dollars.
It includes the settlement with Toyota, which got into trouble for producing vehicles prone to unintended accelerations.
Also included is the National Mortgage Settlement with banks that engaged in questionable foreclosure practices and settlements with pharmaceutical companies that got caught pushing drugs for unapproved uses.
"There's no doubt that corporations are job creators -- nobody can argue that," Ramsey said.
Still, NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Ramsey to explain what was so bad about the Toyota settlement.
"I couldn't tell you exactly, Phil. I really couldn't," he said. "What we are trying to establish is he won't join in what I would call the Obamacare and things like that, but he doesn't hesitate to join in if you're pursuing a business."
But our investigation discovered that many of the Republican attorneys general who may want to shake up Tennessee's Supreme Court entered into those very same settlements.
"Are you saying that they were enemies of job creators?" we asked.
"Well, let's say, I wouldn't say that exactly," Ramsey responded.
NewsChannel 5 Investigatesnoted, "But that's what you are accusing Attorney General Cooper of."
"Well, on those particular ones they were," Ramsey said, later adding that he did not really know any of those other attorneys general.
But Conner said that the settlements with those big corporations would not have been any less if Cooper had not joined them.
"If he had not joined these settlements, the money would not have come into the state of Tennessee coffers, which allows government not to go elsewhere to get those dollars," he added.
Ramsey's presentation also outlines a number of cases where the state Supreme Court itself has ruled against some of Tennessee's biggest corporations -- or, in some cases, refused to take up cases that businesses wanted them to take.
And it warns that so-called tort reform, passed last year by the legislature to limit jury verdicts, could be overturned if those three justices are allowed to keep their seats.
"Don't go out here and tell me that this is a non-partisan group and that there has never been politics involved," Ramsey said. "There has always been politics involved."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Conner, "Are these three justices political?"
"No, absolutely not," the Republican lawyer answered.
And Conner said he fears that the plan drawn up by his fellow Republican could politicize Tennessee's justice system for years to come.
"So you're afraid of a Supreme Court for sale to the highest bidder?" we asked.
"You bet I am," he said emphatically.
If Republicans are successful in convincing voters to kick out any of the three justices, the governor would appoint their replacements.
All it would take is one of those seats to give Republicans a majority on the court, which probably would lead to a Republican Attorney General.
Getting an attorney general who thinks more like Republican leaders appears to be the lieutenant governor's main motivation.