By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — John Jay Hooker, by his words, has secured assurances from members of the Tennessee General Assembly to introduce articles of impeachment against state appellate court judges whose names appeared on last week’s election ballot.
They include Tennessee Supreme Court Justices Gary Wade, Connie Clark and Sharon Lee, who won their retention elections last week.
Hooker takes issue with the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission, which no longer exists, but, according to Tennessee Courts.gov, used surveys and interviews to review the performance of appellate judges and recommended them for retention or replacement.
Will Tennessee lawmakers really impeach? Chris Butler explains.
Hooker, 84, twice served as the Tennessee Democratic Party’s gubernatorial nominee and for 40 years has fought to bring back direct elections of state Supreme Court justices, which, he says, the state constitution requires. Since the early 1970s the governor has appointed justices directly and, eight years later, voters choose whether to retain them. Hooker’s Democratic Party credentials are so strong that Bobby Kennedy was one of his closest friends.
Hooker will not publicly tell Tennessee Watchdog which members of the Legislature are willing to proceed with impeachment, yet it all may depend on the outcome of Hooker’s first course of action — involving the Davidson County grand jury in Nashville.
“I’m not going to ask them to indict the judges,” Hooker said.
“I’m simply going to ask the grand jury to issue a report that says these judges were unlawfully on the ballot and therefore they are unlawfully elected.”
Hooker told Tennessee Watchdog last week state Supreme Court justices, who had a professional stake in the matter, are responsible for not informing JPEC of this oversight.
JPEC members disregarded Hooker’s complaints during their hearings, he said.
These judges, even if they didn’t see the value in the requirement that a sufficient number of women and minorities serve on JPEC, disregarded state law, regardless, Hooker added.
Metro Nashville and Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson told Tennessee Watchdog on Tuesday that Hooker approached the grand jury on a similar matter three months ago.
“The grand jury listened to him and said he made some interesting points, but they didn’t see where they could take any action,” Johnson said, adding a different grand jury will hear Hooker’s latest argument.
“It could issue a report, but it’s just a grand jury report. It doesn’t really carry any weight that I can see that will cause anything to change.”
Tennessee law allows private citizens who think they’ve suffered some sort of criminal aggrievement to approach their local grand jury, Johnson said.
Administrative Office of the Courts officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday, nor did representatives of the Tennessee Bar Association.
So why does Hooker think he can use a grand jury in any county to influence what is, essentially, a state matter?
The answer is simple, said Lebanon attorney Forrest Shoaf, a Republican who agrees with Hooker and plans to accompany him to the grand jury.
“Those judges appeared on a ballot in Davidson County. For that matter, the Decatur County grand jury could do it,” Shoaf told Tennessee Watchdog.
“They are measuring the merit of a ballot that appeared statewide and in Mr. Hooker’s and in my view the appellate judges appeared on it in violation of the law. It’s not only politically corrupt, it’s unlawful, because the entity that sanctioned the appearance of those names on the ballot statewide was unlawfully comprised.”
Shoaf said many lawyers across Tennessee agree with him and Hooker, even if they don’t publicly admit it.
“They are afraid to antagonize the judges before them,” said Shoaf, a former CFO for Cracker Barrel.
“Many lawyers have said to me, ‘I agree with you that the Tennessee plan is unconstitutional and therefore unlawful. But I have a living to make and children to feed and I just can’t come out.’”
A grand jury report saying the judges were elected unconstitutionally would lead to the next step, Shoaf said.
“I would think if you have a report from the Davidson County grand jury then you could approach the House of Representatives for impeachment,” Shoaf said.
“Impeachment is a significant step.”
But do state legislators have the political will to undue the will of voters last week?
“The simple answer is I don’t know if the political will is there,” Shoaf said.
“Impeachment is a very, very serious step. But whether the political will is there is an entirely different question. Is the legal will there? I would say yes.”
In that case, Hooker said, he would hope the judges resign, adding he foresees this chain of events starting as early as September.
Do the two men expect favorable media coverage of their cause?
The short answer, said Shoaf, is no.
“I do not expect them to react well,” Shoaf said.
“I think they will say, particularly in my case, that I once sought a position on the Tennessee Appeals Bench under the Tennessee Plan, but that was before I myself looked into the full details. They will say, well, this is Hooker’s hobbyhorse and he’s guilty of sour grapes.”
It’s not a partisan issue as much as it is a state constitutional issue, Shoaf said.
“John Jay Hooker and I come from this issue from two different political orientations.
“He’s what I call an old school liberal and I’m a Goldwater Republican — but we agree on this. He’s been a prophet without honor on this issue for a long time, and I’m proud to be in league with him.”
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