Haslam fears Supreme Court push could muddy 'Yes on 2' campaign

Governor says he won't work for, against Ramsey-driven campaign to remove Democrats from state's highest court

Gov. Bill Haslam says he wants nothing to do with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s push to convince Republicans and business leaders to vote out the three Democrats on the state Supreme Court.

While he said Ramsey is welcome to pursue that effort on his own, Haslam said he’s worried the debate could hamper his ability to compel voters to favor a constitutional amendment he argues will keep the politics out of how the state selects judges. The governor is leading that campaign, an effort called “Vote Yes on 2.”

“The whole issue of how we select judges is fairly confusing to anybody, (let alone) what Amendment 2 is about. So I am concerned that the issue just would be confused on the November ballot,” the governor told reporters Wednesday after an event at Lipscomb University.

“One of my main concerns is that we not muddy the waters for Amendment 2 in November, and that’s our job to hopefully get that message clear,” said Haslam.

But it doesn’t mean he’ll try to stop Ramsey’s push to convince the electorate to vote down the three justices, he said. As the public official currently with the power to decide who will replace any judges not retained in the August judicial retention elections, he said he doesn’t want to get involved and said justices should speak for themselves about why voters should keep them.

Asked if he would discourage groups from sinking money into campaigns against supreme court justices, Haslam joked he didn’t know how effective it would be, but added he finds the voice of special interests in government getting louder.

“More and more a reality of what you see in government today, period, is you have outside interests playing in issues — not just here but everywhere — and that’s just part of the new environment. And it means when you have an argument to make, you better make it as forceful as you can,” he said.

The amendment up for a vote in the November elections would largely constitutionalize the state’s current method for selecting judges. While the governor currently appoints judges and voters can vote to keep or dump them every eight years, the change would let the legislature also have a say on the appointees.

Amending the constitution is thought to clear up language in the state's guiding document that some have argued calls for direct elections of appellate and Supreme Court judges. While some insist voters should have a clear say, Haslam maintains that direct elections would insert politics into the judicial system.