Polling the Negatives Against Supreme Court Judges

A poll has been conducted to fine-tune the message likely to be used against three incumbent state Supreme Court justices who face a retention election in August.

Normally, about 30 percent of voters vote against retention for appeals-court justices. That gives opponents of retention a base to build on. The Tennessee Conservative Union, with a very limited budget, ousted Justice Penny White in 1996 over a death-penalty decision. The group spent a lot less money than is expected to flow in from out-of-state conservative groups this year.

The message-testing poll is on some issues that may be used against Justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark, and Sharon Lee. The way the poll framed the issues got really high negative numbers—over 75 percent—and the issues will likely be framed the same way in anti-retention ads.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has argued that the three justices are anti-business or aren't executing enough prisoners on death row. Ramsey has said he will not lead the effort to unseat the Democrats in order to make way for Republican justices, saying his role is "informational." His interpretation of Supreme Court decisions has been questioned by supporters of the three justices, and prominent Republicans have been having fund-raisers to support them.

Gov. Bill Haslam has warned that raising the profile of the retention elections with negative campaigning could hamper efforts to pass a constitutional amendment calling for the appointment of appeals-court justices in November.