Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is taking some fire for organizing a push to unseat three Democratic Supreme Court justices. He talked to reporters at length Thursday about what his reasons are, what he makes of the criticism, and whether he’d throw out the court’s sitting Republican justices if they weren’t already retiring.
Here’s the full transcript of his talk with reporters:
Q: The governor yesterday say he is worried that the campaign to defeat the three incumbent justices might “muddy the waters,” his words, on his “Yes on 2” campaign. You disagree, presumably?
RAMSEY: I have not talked to the governor about this but I cannot connect the dots on that one. If anything, if we have a true election — as the supreme court has said retention elections are and the people get the right to either retain or not retain — that legitimizes the retention election process. And in my opinion, in the end, will actually help the amendment pass, not hurt the amendment. I cannot understand any argument where it actually hurts it. I don’t. Now, I have not talked to the governor about this. I read it in the news accounts, and I will, I just haven’t had a chance yet. But I cannot understand that argument at all.
Q: If you’re going to have partisan elections, why not just get rid of the Tennessee Plan all together and just have partisan elections?
RAMSEY: Because the Supreme Court three times ruled that that retention elections are elections and I think that’s where we’re going to end up and I’m OK with that. And for those that argue that partisan elections taint the judiciary, then they’ll have to argue the day before yesterday there were hundreds of elections that were tainted across this state. That’s not true. I mean, these are partisan elections. They’ve always been partisan elections. Either you have your head in the sand or you’re being hypocritical if you say partisanship has never been in judges’ elections.
Q: Wasn’t the Tennessee Plan designed to make it nonpartisan?
RAMSEY: No. The Tennessee Plan was designed to be partisan. The Tennessee Plan was designed during the Winfield Dunn administration, because Winfield Dunn, the Democrat leadership in the legislature did not want Winfield Dunn to appoint judges. Period. That’s how it was designed. Then for decades, the state executive committee of the Democrat Party picked a slate of Supreme Court justices that were on the ballot that fall. And so you can’t tell me that it was designed to be nonpartisan. It was designed because of partisan politics. Period.
Q: But the Tennessee Plan was applied to the Supreme Court in 1994.
RAMSEY: Right, but it was the appellate court before that. You’re exactly right. It was appellate courts before that, since ‘72. And they thought, well, since we still control the state — this is honest to goodness truth — since we still control the state, this is a Democrat state, we’ll let the state executive committee pick the supreme court justices, and then as the state started to change, as they saw, they said well, maybe the Supreme
Court justices ought to be included in this, too. That’s exactly how this happened. It was pure partisan politics from day one.
Q: I stand to be corrected on this, but it was my recallection that Wilder moved to strip the exectuive committee from appointment power after they knoked off either Ray Brock or Bob Cooper, Robert Cooper. Conservative justices and labor folks and whatnot went after them in executive committee and I think knocked at least one of them out.
RAMSEY: Doesn’t that make my point that it was founded in politics?
Q: Why do you support then (the constitutional amendment)
RAMSEY: Because I do think retention elections are the best way. I do. I don’t think that one on one elections are the way to do this. I’ve seen how that’s worked in other elections. Let’s have retention elections, that’s the reason I support it.
Q: But you’ve raised concerns about the sort of, popular elections, contested elections. So why the concern there and not in something like this where you’re going about attacking them when you’re campagining against the incumbents as well and putting money in, etc. All the same elements are in the race.
RAMSEY: I’m missing something here. Now, say that again.
Q: All the same elements of a regular election are going to be in this campaign of yours to oust these judges, so why is that OK and not in a regular straight-up election?
RAMSEY: I just think retention elections are a better way to go about it. You could pick either one, and I could argue either side. But where we are politically and statutorily, is the fact that we have retention elections in August. That’s where we are right now. And I could argue the other side if I wanted to. The fact that it should be someone against someone as it is in local elections, but we are where we are. That’s what he have the votes for, that’s what in statute, that’s what we’re going with.
Q: You have a commission that you helped appoint that recommended that these justices be retained. Is it a waste of taxpayer resources for you to then turn around and ignore your own commission?
RAMSEY: It may be a waste of taxpayer resources to have that commission because that commission never recommends not to retain people. I will argue that. But in the end is it a waste of taxpayer money to allow the 6 million people in the state of Tennessee to decide whether they want to retain or not retain a judge? No. That’s what it’s all about. Is the commission a waste of time? Probably. And I’ve argued all along that it is a waste of time because they don’t non-retain people. They just don’t. To say that allowing the people in the state of Tennessee the right to choose their judge and the right to vote would be a waste of time or waste of money? No.
Q: Some of your own people that you appointed were among those...
RAMSEY: Yeah, I disagree with [it]. That shows how independent they are. I didn't have any influence over them. What's wrong with that. We appointed this commission as required by the statute. I think you may see an attempt to do away with that next time around because I think they don't do what they're supposed to do. And the irony is that some of them were voted to be not retained and the Supreme Court justice himself got involved in that publicly, which I think is against their canons and I think was reprimanded if not censored over that. So I did not try to influence them. He did try to influence and somehow you're asking me, is that the right thing? Ask him why he wanted to influence after they took their first vote so they wouldn't do it a second time. That's the question you ought to be asking here.
Q: The document is a political campaign document prepared by your staff. Can staff do that?
RAMSEY: On their own time they did. We made sure that was the case.
Q: Did they use state resources or do in office or use state equipment?
RAMSEY: No, no, no. This was done on our own time, on our computer, and I made sure of that. Just like last year when I had Jordan Young, who is now my assistant chief of staff, work on our campaigns, he resigned from state government, didn't take a leave of absence. He literally resigned and we did the same thing here to make sure that we had that fire wall. because was I expecting this criticism? Obviously I was. But at the same time we made sure that didn't happen.
Q: Were it prepared in the office?
RAMSEY: I wouldn't think so. But I'd have to ask to be sure. I know the questions to all the other, was it on their own computers? Yes. Was it on their own time? Yes. But I would definitely think it wasn't in the office. I'd have to check that to be sure.
Q: But it was shown to people inside state offices?
RAMSEY: Yes it has. I don't see a problem with that as I've told you before. Because here's the deal. Whether we're talking about any issue, annexation, where we're talking about anything like that, my job as lieutenant governor is to make sure I keep the public informed, whatever that issue might be. This is what we're doing with this, we're informing the public and allowing them to make their own decision. I see nothing wrong with this. It's what I do every day.
Q: This is an election issue, then?
RAMSEY: It's an informational issue, yes. What I've been doing, and I honestly have, is make sure that people understand that the retention election is up, here's some of the issues that could be used and everything we do up here is an election issue. If I vote for annexation or against annexation, that is an election issue. If I vote for a pay raise or not a pay raise, that's an election issue. Every issue we take, Phil (Williams) is an election issue.
Q: The governor said yesterday he thinks a real danger in what you're doing in that using specific cases against justices where they're barred from the canons from commenting about specific cases.
RAMSEY: Well I don't.
RAMSEY: Why not.
Q: Why is that not dangerous?
RAMSEY: Why is it a dangerous, you tell me that. Why is it dangerous to use specific cases?
Q: Is it misleading when Republicans join in the same opinions? Is it at least misleading?
RAMSEY: No. If they were here we wouldn't have them retained either. But they're not on the ballot anymore. I'd vote not to retain them either.
Q: You would vote not to retain some of Gov. Haslam's appointments?
RAMSEY: If they were on the ballot but they're not. And joining some of these same issues, yes, but they're not on the ballot this time
Q: Both of them? You would be pushing for both of them?
RAMSEY: I'd be voting to non-retain people who voted like this, yes. Amazing discussion that We're talking about the people deciding who their Supreme Court justices are, as our Constitution calls for, and this seems like there's something tainted about this. Do y'all ask the same thing about the Legislature? Do you ask the same thing about the governor? Isn't this somewhat tainted that you decide which governor you want, isn't this tainted? This is the same thing exactly as called for in our Constitution, people. Can you not understand that?
Q: But you're proposing a misleading campaign, aren't you?
RAMSEY: Oh, come on. No, I'm not misleading. I'll have our side. They'll have their side.
Q: Why not tell both sides?
RAMSEY: That's the other side. If I'm running for election do I tell both sides? No, I tell what I think will enhance my election. That's what it's for. Then you have an election. The other side tells their side. Does Barack Obama tell the good side, or the bad side, when he's running? No, that's what elections are about. And let the people decide who's telling the truth.
Q: Isn’t the concept of justice enough that there’s sort of, I mean it’s a unique sort of election to where you’ve got someone that’s making these kinds of decisions and they’re supposed to be impartial, which is not always the case up here.
RAMSEY: The only way that you ever judge something about a judge is make sure that the people you elect have high integrity. That's the bottom line. And I've heard these elections, ‘You're threatening the independence of the judiciary.’ The independence from whom? The people?
Q: Prominent Republican Lew Conner says it’s inappropriate?
RAMSEY: Well, I disagree with him, adamantly disagree with him. The Lew Conners of the world...
Q: Mickey Barker too,
RAMSEY: Well, I disagree. I disagree. I disagree. The people like that were the same ones that came to me when I was trying to take over the state Senate, saying 'John Wilder's been here a long time, he's done us a good job, is that really what you want to do?' Yes. I want Republicans to gain a majority in the state Senate, the same group opposed me. When we were appointing these three constitutional officers sitting in this room right here. That same group of Republicans came to me and said, 'well you know John Morgan's been there a long time, he knows this state government.' It is insulting to me to tell me that there aren't three good Republicans that can be a constitutional officer, that there is not three good attorneys in the state of Tennessee that happen to be Republican that could be on the state Supreme Court. That's insulting and I disagree with them.
Q: I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, why do you think it’s OK to ask half truths about judges who cannot defend themselves?
RAMSEY: They can defend themselves. There'll be independent campaigns. They're raising money, Phil. I'm not raising money yet. They're raising money today. Is that to defend themselves? Absolutely.
Q: But they're prohibited from going out on the stump and talking about specific cases.
RAMSEY: Specific cases, yes.
Q: But you're going to attack them on specific cases.
RAMSEY: They will have a committee to defend themselves. There's nothing wrong with that. That's what it's all about. There’s nothing wrong with this. I see nothing wrong with this, I don't.
Q: Let me ask you this. You've got substantial resources in your PAC and also in your personal campaign account. Do you plan on putting money toward that?
RAMSEY: No, none.
Q: Will you ask out-of state organizations?
RAMSEY: No, I've not talked to any of them. That’s another thing that I think is a red herring, that they have thrown out — they being the Supreme Court justices — to raise a red flag. Now, did the State Legislative Campaign Committees call me and ask about this one time? Yes, because I'm big in their organization. I was at their very first meeting in 2002, and they helped us take over.
So if outside groups call me, I'll give them the information. But I plan on not contacting one. As a matter of fact, it's my understanding that the Supreme Court justices said they're afraid of the Americans for Prosperity and Koch brother, and I think Tom Humphrey called Andrew Ogles (Americans for Prosperity Director) and they said that's not even on our radar screen. That ought to tell you that I've not been working that side. It seems that they're the ones working.
Q: But Lance (Frizzell, Ramsey’s chief of staff) has been doing that, hasn't he?
RAMSEY: No, no, no. If somebody calls me, do I answer the phone? Yes. But do I solicit anything? Not one.
Here's another thing. If anything the press, you all standing here, you all ought to be on the side that this is great. This is about the openness of the court, and it’s about people deciding who their elected official is. The other side is, if you didn't like this, then it is lifetime appointments, insulated from the public, living in their ivory tower. That would be the other side of this. So seems to me that you all ought to be on the side of people getting to pick who their legislators, or governor, or Supreme Court justice is, for that matter. I don’t get this. I really don’t. Like this is some kind of undermining campaign to do something….
Q: My main question is about your role in going out and telling half of the story.
RAMSEY: I wouldn't even say I'm telling half the story, I'm telling my side of the story, and they'll get to tell their side of the story. Every campaign tells half of the story, Phil. Come on. You don't go out and say, oh by the way the reason you should vote against me is. No, campaigns are about telling your side of the story, which is what I'm telling. They tell their side of the story, then people decide.
Q: But are you telling the truth?
RAMSEY: Yes, I'm telling the truth.
Q: When you say the court let people go free, when it was actually prosecutors?
RAMSEY: I think the court had to agree that if prosecutors make a recommendation, yes. The prosecutors can't say we're going to let this person free. No they can't, Phil, common.
Q: They can cut plea bargains.
RAMSEY: Then who (approves) the plea bargain?
Q: Well, that would be the trial judge, not the appellate or the Supreme Court judge.
RAMSEY: A judge somewhere along the line has to agree to this. Again, I’ve told you from day one, I've not looked at a lot these individual cases, I'm educating the people between now and August. I will study up on these to see where they are. But you're telling me that a prosecutor can let somebody go without a judge's OK?
Q: A prosecutor can enter into a plea agreement with the defense. It happens all the time.
RAMSEY: But a judge somewhere has to approve it?... In the end a judge has to approve it. And we'll look at the individual cases and make sure the ones we’re using, or they’re using are correct before it’d be defensible. That’s the bottom line. So you do agree, then, since that’s your only thing, if you’re using the right cases, you’d be in favor of what we’re doing here?
Q: I think people expect you to tell the truth.
RAMSEY: We are going to tell the truth. I'll promise to tell you the truth. If we're not telling the truth, our whole argument is blown out of the water. It's so easily shot down, if you don't have your facts behind you. So bottom line is if we use cases that are defensible, you’re in favor of this? Are you?
Q: I don’t have a position if you’re telling the truth.
RAMSEY: So if I’m telling the truth you’re OK? OK. That’s all I needed to know.
Q: You told Tom (Humphrey, Knoxville News Sentinel) for his story that you weren't going to lead this effort, that’s you’re just interested in letting people know and urging them to vote against, but how does that jibe with putting together this Power Point and bringing it to various corporations and other people. It sounds like you are leading this.
RAMSEY: To let them make up their mind. I'm not telling them what they need to do. It's an informational campaign that I have. I'm one of 6.2 million people who get to vote in this state. But I want to make sure that in November nobody says, well if I had known about this back in August, I might have been willing to join in and do something about it. I want to make sure that you lay out the facts and say once every eight years — their term is up in August, period. And we decide whether to extend their term or not.
To sit here and say we ought to automatically give them another eight years is ridiculous. It's ridiculous.
Q: But in terms of leadership, it sounds like you and your office and your staff are the ones who are the genesis of this and pushing for it.
RAMSEY: Absolutely. Because I want to make sure people are informed. This happens once every eight years and this is your chance and you make up your mind what you want to do.
Q: So you are leading it?
RAMSEY: I'm leading the informational campaign. I've said that all along. I’m leading the informational campaign to make sure that people know that every eight years, there's a retention election on the ballot, period.
Q: To defeat these candidates?
Ramsey: In my opinion I want to defeat the candidates, it's up to you to make that opinion from this point forward. I can't force people to vote.
Q: But isn't that what a leadership role?
RAMSEY: I've got a leadership role in terms of being informational, but I want to let people make up their mind where they want to be. It will take 2 million people to decide they don't want to be retained. I can't contact 2 million people.
Q: How much money will it take?
RAMSEY: Who knows. I've not gotten into that side. I'm not raising money for this. I've not raised a dime and I'm not planning on raise a dime. I'm just giving the information out there. I'm not making a contribution out of my PAC, I'm not making a contribution out of my campaign account. It's up to other people to decide, 'He's got a good point here, let's look into this and see what we want to do.'
Q: Can you succeed without money?
RAMSEY: No. No campaign can succeed without money. I've also found out that a campaign can have a lot of money and still not succeed. You can have $3 million and not succeed. I'm just hypothetically speaking, of course. (Laughs)
Q: In hindsight, have you mishandled this at all?
RAMSEY: No! How have I mishandled it? No! No! How do you think I have, if you do?
Q: So how do you really feel? (Laughter)
RAMSEY: You all know me well enough. I will always say exactly how I feel. Exactly how I feel. I don’t hide from other thing. If you’re doing the right thing — The other side has no philosophical leg to stand on here. They really don't. None. What can they possibly say besides other than they want lifetime appointments. That sure, we meant retention elections, and that retention elections really are elects, but we didn't mean REALLY are elections. How do you stand on that? That this is affecting the independence of the judiciary? Independence from whom? Here's what I love, too, where they say, ‘We don't care if it's Democrats or Republicans, we just want them to be good judges.’ Well, I want them to be Republicans, I'll be right up front about that. So I've got a win-win situation. Since you all don't care if they're Democrat or Republican, and I want them to be Republican, let's make them Republican and we're both happy. There’s no philosophical leg to stand on.
Q: Is there a difference between Republican justices and Democrat justices?
RAMSEY: No, I hope not.
Q: So why do you want Republican justices?
RAMSEY: Why not? Because it's our turn after 200 years. To say that there's a difference, then you're saying if you could have fair impartial Democrat judges, and fair and impartial Republican judges, which I believe you can, I'd pick the Republican's. What's wrong with that?
Q: Is the urgency here solely because the AG's term is up?
RAMSEY: The urgency is August is the election.
Q: Presumably, it looks like chances are good a Republican is going to win the governor’s race in the fall. And he has the appointment power the next time there’s a retirement or anything else. The GOP court is within reach with a single appointment, you're going to get there sooner or later.
RAMSEY: It'd rather it would be sooner. August is the election, that’s my whole campaign here. August is the election. Once every eight years you get to do this. Here's where we are, do you want to take sides on this or not. It really is that simple.
Q: The whole (Attorney General Bob) Cooper thing is part of the presentation that you all had developed.
RAMSEY: There's never in the history of this state been a Republican attorney general, and you can't tell me out of the hundreds of Republican attorneys in this state, there's not a qualified Republican that could be an attorney general. If you can have a qualified Democrat or a qualified Republican, and I can have either of both, guess which one I’m going to pick? The qualified Republican. What’s wrong with that?
Q: Do you feel the AG should not be involved in consumer protection lawsuits and things like that?
RAMSEY: I don't know about individual case again, I really don't. You could have a qualified Republican and qualified Democrat, and I'd pick the qualified Republicans every time.