The chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court wants more people to know about what the court does and how its justices are elected.
Chief Justice Gary Wade spoke to members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary Club on Thursday, sharing how the state’s highest court works and how its justices are elected.
Wade explained how justices in the United States Supreme Court and the Tennessee Supreme Court are named and retained.
“We have a different formula in Tennessee about the way judges at the appellate level are appointed, selected and ultimately elected in a retention campaign,” Wade said.
National supreme court justices are appointed for life and do not have to run for re-election.
He said the idea of the U.S. Supreme Court justices being able to hold the positions for as long as they want to was originally introduced so they could make their decisions — even unpopular ones — without fear of losing their seats.
However, he said the Tennessee General Assembly decided in 1970 and again in 1974 that the state needed to look at a new model that created more accountability for the state Supreme Court justices because they were “basically invisible” to the citizens of the state.
Judges in the Tennessee Court of Appeals and Criminal Court of Appeals were in 1990 required to begin being regularly evaluated and go through retention elections. In 1994, that same requirement was extended to Supreme Court judges.
The Appeals Court judges remain largely unknown by the average citizen today, Wade said.
“I challenge any one of you who other than the lawyers to name another person on the Supreme Court or another person on the Court of Criminal Appeals or the Court of Appeals,” he said. “We like that. We feel like we ought to be like referees in a football game. We do a good job, and we are noticed the least. That anonymity is cherished by the judges.”
He explained that it is positive for judges to keep a low profile because they are to serve as “referees” rather than politicians.
However, he said the very people who may not know much about the state’s judges are responsible for voting for whether or not to retain them.
He and two other Tennessee Supreme Court justices, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee, will be facing retention elections this fall.
After speaking about his personal experiences, Wade shared how the three of them occasionally travel around the state to campaign the way other court judges do, something he said many people do not know about the state Supreme Court.
“We judges become like locusts every eight years,” Wade said with a laugh. “We have to go out and campaign.”
Every eight years, a state Supreme Court justice must face what is referred to as a retention election, he explained.
Tennesseeans vote for whether or not to retain the existing Supreme Court justices after being evaluated by a Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission.
The commission consists of individuals appointed to it by state legislators and state bar associations.
Every four years, state appellate judges are issued “grade cards” that explain how that person has done over the previous four years.
“They review our body of work over the years, the timeliness of the work and the quality of the work, the conduct of the judge in office,” Wade said.
While many judges get positive scores, some do not. Wade said one Tennessee judge recently chose to retire because he had received a low score on his 2014 grade card.
“The three Supreme Court judges, including myself, received 26 of 27 possible votes of the evaluation commission,” he said.
He, Clark and Lee were evaluated this year.
While they received those votes from the state evaluation commission, Wade said all three are traveling around the state to campaign because an “opposition campaign” has been launched against the three justices up for retention.
Wade encouraged people to look at the state appellate judges’ evaluations and decide for themselves whether or not to retain them before the election takes place.
The 2014 evaluation reports for all the judges can be found at the following link: www.tsc.state.tn.us/node/2458533.