NewsNewsChannel 5 InvestigatesThe Politics of Justice


Report Analyzes Judges' Strengths, Weaknesses

Posted at 6:20 PM, Jul 29, 2014
and last updated 2015-09-11 15:04:44-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- So how's the public supposed to know what to believe?

That's the question that NewsChannel 5 Investigates has been asking about the battle for control of the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Altogether, Tennesseans will be voting either to retain or replace 23 appellate judges -- including the three incumbent justices -- on the August ballot.

The truth is: most of us know nothing about them.

But a voters guide -- compiled by a largely Republican commission -- may be at least one piece of the puzzle.

"Any voter who wants to be as informed as they can be ought to read our report," said Nashville lawyer Joseph "Woody" Woodruff.

Woodruff is no stranger to the world of law and politics. He's served as lawyer for the Republican campaigns of Governor Haslam and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson.

More recently, he served on a nine-member panel known as the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.

That commission produced a report evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the state's appellate judges who face a vote over whether they should be retained.

"This document reflects a process that went on for the better part of a year," Woodruff said.

It was a process that judged the judges on factors like integrity, knowledge of the law and effectiveness, offering insights that voters would have no way to know -- including the results of anonymous surveys of members of the legal community.

"I wouldn't have had any idea about who was getting their work done in a timely manner and who wasn't had I not been involved in the process," the veteran lawyer said.

In the case of the three Supreme Court justices, the Commission voted to recommend retention for Justice Sharon Lee and Chief Justice Gary Wade on a 9-to-0 vote.

For Justice Connie Clark, it was 8-to-1.

For a few of the other appellate judges, it was a much closer call.

The report not only spells out why commission members voted the way they did, it also includes responses from the judges themselves.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Woodruff, "True or false, this should be viewed as an endorsement?"

"False," he answered. "It does not mean case closed, the decision is made."

"It says these people are qualified?" we asked.

"Absolutely. It says these people are qualified, and here's how they meet the qualification."

Yet, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, who helped appoint the evaluation commission, has suggested it was nothing more than a "rubber stamp."

"True or false," we asked, "this was just a rubber stamp?"

"Absolutely false," Woodruff responded.

"This was a deep dive into work habits, work performance, judicial philosophy -- everything that was fair game under the rule, we took a really hard look at."

And what about that hearing where Senate Republicans suggested the evaluation commission had caved to pressure from the legal community?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Woodruff, "True or false, you were pressured into reaching this conclusion?"

"Completely false," he insisted.

"There was no pressure, other than just the personal pressure to do a good job for the people of Tennessee."

In the end, Woodruff said, he believes the commission produced a report that, while not meant to tell voters how to vote, may help cut through the noise.

"When you've only go two alternatives - retain or replace - retain and replace are equally legitimate," he added.

One commission member -- Franklin engineer Mike Tant -- came out last week and announced that, based on what he heard, he thinks the Supreme Court justices ought to be retained. (Read Tant's statement here.)

But another commission member, Chattanooga lawyer Chris Clem, told NewsChannel 5 that -- given a choice between competent Democratic appointees and competent Republican appointees -- he'll take his chances and vote to replace the three justices.

Here is what Clem said in an email:

First, If I have to have 3 democrat justices then these three will do. As a trial lawyer I generally agree with their opposition to tort reform.  As we determined at JPEC they all do their jobs and turn their decisions around in a timely manner.  So, they are qualified democrat justices. 

However, since this is a statewide election, I will exercise my right as a voter to prefer a republican TN Supreme Court that will appoint a republican attorney general for the first time in my lifetime.  And, who won’t use their prestige, donations and political activism to black ball all republican applicants for Attorney General and who only campaign to elect other democrats (as these 3 democrat justices have repeatedly done for years). 

In other words, if they are partisan then why can’t we vote against them for being partisan?  If they were truly non-partisan they would have appointed a republican for attorney general sometime in the last 50 years.  They would have not use their clout to overwhelmingly support democrats. 

In summary, the Tennessee Constitution requires all 3 branches of government to be elected by the people.  It amazes me that any branch of government can claim that they are “entitled to be re-elected” and that anyone who opposes their “re-election” is bringing politics into an election.

Critics have noted that a Davidson County judge had ruled the evaluation commission did not have enough women, as required by law.

Still, that judge refused to block the commission from making recommendations.

That case is still making its way through the courts.

Read the commission's report here.

Back to NC5 Investigates: The Politics of Justice
NewsChannel 5 Investigates