TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Cynthia Wyrick on May 1, 2014

Journal Issue Date: May 2014

Journal Name: May 2014 - Vol. 50, No. 5

I am sure I do not have to tell you that judicial elections are on the horizon. After all, you see the campaign signs everywhere you look, and each day at mail call you receive additional solicitations for contributions to various judicial campaigns. Many of you give generously to support candidates who you believe will make (or continue to be) outstanding jurists. By doing so, you tell yourself that you have done your part to contribute to the cause of justice as it relates to the judiciary. I would tell you that, in fact, making campaign contributions is only the beginning of our obligation to ensure that our citizens have access to a fair and impartial judicial system.

Sadly, the schools across our state offer little in the way of civics education. You would be amazed to learn just how many people cannot even recite the three branches of our government as a result of this void. Given this lack of information about even the most basic principles of our government, is it realistic to think that the average citizen has an understanding of the qualities to consider when determining whether a candidate would likely to be a good judge? When people have no framework by which to “judge the judges,” they are particularly susceptible to messages which unjustly criticize judges and judicial candidates. For instance, we as lawyers know that it is absolutely inappropriate for a judge to announce how he or she would rule on a particular issue as part of a campaign; yet, it is fair to say that most members of our communities do not appreciate this limitation.

The good news is that each of us can make a meaningful difference on this front with fairly limited effort, and with the additional benefit of doing some marketing in the process. I would ask that between now and August (and even before the May primaries, if possible), each of our members get out in the community and make one or more presentations to groups about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary and the qualities that make someone a good judge. Include information about the things that judges and judicial candidates are prohibited from doing during a campaign. Explain that those who don’t follow these rules would not actually be a good judge because they have already shown a disregard for the law.

You may be thinking that despite the worthy nature of this cause, you simply do not have time to gather the information and prepare a presentation. Fortunately, there is no need because the TBA has already done that for you. You need only go to tba.org, and click on the link to the 2014 Tennessee Judicial Selection Information Center. There, you will find everything from the qualities that make a good judge, to the list of those who have signed the TBA’s Tennessee Fair Judicial Code of Conduct, to the evaluations and recommendations of the Judicial Evaluation Commission regarding our Supreme Court Justices and Appellate Court judges.

Speaking of appellate court elections, as a profession, we often overlook involving ourselves in appellate court retention elections, assuming that we do not need to lend our voices to the races as the judges do not have an “opponent”. Nothing could be further from the truth. What you may be surprised to learn is that approximately 29 percent of people will vote against retention just because they know nothing about the judges on the ballot, and a significant percentage will not vote at all for the same reason. Whether a voter casts a vote to retain or to replace, our goal must be for each of those to be a fully informed vote.

The public needs and deserves to be educated about appellate races just as much as they do about local judicial races. Not nearly enough of the Tennessee electorate understands how our appellate judges are selected, and evaluated after they are selected. It is important to let members of our communities know that all of our Supreme Court justices and Appellate Court judges who will be on the ballot in August were selected after undergoing vetting through a merit selection system designed to determine whether they possessed the characteristics and qualifications to be a good jurist. The electorate should also know that these judges are then evaluated by the Judicial Evaluation Commission, who seeks input from the lawyers who have appeared before them. 

There is no other profession as well-suited as ours to educate voters about evaluating judicial candidates and casting an informed ballot. For these reasons, and many others, it is crucial for our profession to be as engaged in appellate elections as it is in those where there are multiple candidates in the race.??

The Tennessee Bar Association has a long-standing policy of not taking positions on behalf of any candidate in judicial races; however, we are all too well aware of how important it is for our individual members to be involved in the process. At the same time, the TBA takes a very active role in educating voters about the importance of a fair and impartial judiciary, and also in defending the judiciary against unjust criticism. We will continue to do our part but simply must have every member participate with us. In this area, as in so many others of critical importance to the cause of justice,  “Together We Make a Difference!”

Cindy Wyrick TBA President CINDY WYRICK practices law with Ogle, Gass & Richardson PC in Sevierville.