Is it an election or not? You can’t have it both ways.
Tennessee’s constitution says the state’s Supreme Court justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.” Although a “yes” or “no” retention vote is not my interpretation of this straightforward mandate, a special panel appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court found that it meets the state’s constitutional requirement. My personal view aside, a constitutional initiative will be on the ballot this November which will put to rest this four-decades-old question once and for all. But that is in November; let’s talk about what happens in August.
It is the height of irony that the loudest defenders of retention elections are generally the staunchest critics of a growing grassroots movement to urge voters to reject some of the judges on the ballot this year. Whether it is the Trial Lawyers Association or the Chamber of Commerce, any group, liberal or conservative, should have the right to inform the voters of their views. It is an election, isn’t it?
Since the retention vote system was implemented in 1971, only one judge has not been retained. It was not on the basis of partisanship. That vote was primarily due to a controversial decision regarding the death penalty. This year, crime is again the issue. Two cases specifically have garnered media attention. In one case, the actions of the Supreme Court removed Arthur Copeland, a cold-blooded contract killer, from death row. Copeland was subsequently released from prison. Two years later, he was arrested for a violent rape.
In another case, the court vacated the death sentence of Leonard Smith, who admitted killing two elderly shopkeepers in one night during a crime spree.
And there are more. We are talking about horrific and monstrous murders committed in Tennessee. The majority of Tennesseans have made clear they want the death penalty implemented for the most heinous crimes in our state. But the Supreme Court remains reticent.
Just take a look at the facts on the death penalty (or lack thereof) in Tennessee. Seventy-five people currently sit on death row in this state, 24 were sentenced prior to 1990. Since 1960, the state has executed only six, and only one since 2009. It is the state Supreme Court’s job to set execution dates after appeals have been exhausted. They neglected to carry out that duty until recently — just in time for the retention elections. That is more than a little convenient.
There are many ways in which voters can receive information to make informed decisions in these judicial elections, including hearing from both those who are for and against a candidate on the ballot. This input is especially important in judicial elections, as many voters do not have time to review a judge’s experience on the bench. The more people get involved in this election, the more informed the citizens will be when they go to the polls.
In a democracy, the principle of accountability holds that government officials, whether elected or appointed, are responsible to the citizenry for their decisions and actions. Elections are the primary means for citizens to hold officials accountable for their actions in office. Transparency is a very important part of that process.
In the voting process, the people of Tennessee are the judges. As good judges, they should listen to all sides, study the facts and make a decision based on the information available. That is what elections are all about.
Tennessee state Sen. Mike Bell is a Republican from Riceville, Tenn.