It is an unfamiliar position for Lee and her colleagues to be in as they face what has been termed an unprecedented move to replace the members of the state’s highest court.
“We are seeing this as a national effort,” Lee said. “There are elections going on across the county, and there have been in the past, where groups attempt to unseat Supreme Court justices. Most of those where the justices have fought back, the justices have won.”
She said she and her fellow justices are fighting back and “not taking it for granted.”
“We’re getting our message out. Our message is that politics has no place in the courtroom,” Lee said. “Whether you’re a Democrat or Republican should not make a difference in the justice you receive. It should not make any difference in the decision the judge makes. A courtroom should be a politics-free zone.”
She mentioned the numerous flyers and TV ads which contains statements she said are not true.
“But, when we explain what is really going, on people understand and appreciate what we’re trying to do,” Lee said.
Part of those statements revolve around the issue of the state constitution and whether it calls for the direct election of the judges.
Lee acknowledges the constitution says justices have to be elected and adds there have been two special Supreme Courts that have ruled the retention method currently being used does in fact comply with the constitution.
“There are some people who want to change that and there is an amendment that will be on the ballot in November which will provide for merit selection and confirmation by the Legislature,” she explained.
She said she has been asked about that many times, but for now is remaining focused on the August election.
“I can tell you this election now is an election,” Lee said with a laugh. “I’ve been going around the state campaigning. We’re buying TV ads and mail pieces. To say this isn’t an election ... I’m here to tell you it is.”
She said it is important the justices remain accountable to the voters “and to Tennesseeans.”
She admits politics is not something that was learned in law school and said this amplified process she finds herself in now “has been interesting.”
“Anybody who is a candidate will tell you it’s hard to run for office,” Lee said. “But, it’s a good process. It’s getting me out all over the state. I’m meeting Tennesseeans and they’re getting to know me. And, I think the more they know and understand about our process — about their justices individually — the more they respect the system and trust us.”
The move to replace the justices has gotten to a personal level and Lee said she is handling that just fine.
“They have made some personal attacks, but you can’t take it personally. You just have to let it roll off and realize it is politics and just do the best you can,” she said.
Lee and the other justices have come under fire for certain rulings, but she said those decisions are made by using the existing laws and statutes.
“There have been cases in general where they say we’re liberal or soft in crime, but when we take our oath of office we promise to uphold the constitution and uphold the statutes,” Lee said. “Our personal politics and beliefs go by the wayside. That’s an oath I take very seriously. I don’t have an agenda like the governor or a member of the legislature. I can’t promise to do certain things other than to uphold the constitution and to be fair and impartial.”
She said that oath makes it “a difficult campaign,” but they have to remember what is important.
“After this election, I’m going to be a judge who is fair and impartial and upholds the constitution. a I can’t have made any promises any different than that,” she said.
She said there are times she faces making a ruling that by law and statute is appropriate, but it may not be how she feels personally about the issue before her.
“That does happen,” she said. “Sometimes we’ll apply statues and I’ll think if I had been in the legislature I might not have voted for that. But, I’m bound to apply it. That’s just part of it and you adapt very quickly to that limitation.”
Lee said she does not always like the outcomes of the cases the court hears, “but if the law requires it, it’s what you have to do.”
One of the main criticisms the justices are getting has been the court “has not stopped Obamacare.”
“Obamacare is a federal law and the federal courts rule on Obamacare,” Lee said. “The Tennessee Supreme Court does not rule on Obamacare — has not, will not — it’s just not a state issue. So, to say we did not stop Obamacare is just not true.”
She said a retired teacher she met on the campaign trail said something that has stayed with her as she continues the campaign.
“She said, ‘If we have politics in court, we don’t even need laws.’ And, I thought that says it all,” Lee said. “It’s great in the Legislative branch and the Executive branch, but we just don’t need it in the Judicial branch.”