- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - For Penny White, the moment is all too clear.

The 58-year-old former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice recalls “the day, hour and place” in 1996 when she learned someone was planning to end her tenure on the bench. The plan came to fruition when White became the only justice from the state’s high court not to be retained by voters on a statewide ballot.

The Kingsport Times-News reports (https://bit.ly/1r1uMpV) that now, a similar plan is being pushed by Republicans to oust three justices - Gary Wade, Sharon Lee and Cornelia Clark - being run primarily by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

White said she supports Wade, Lee and Clark, but won’t be giving them any advice on how to be retained.

“I’d be the last person they’d want advice from, … I lost, remember?” White concluded.

White, an appointee of Gov. Ned McWhorter, learned of the campaign against her on June 14, 1996 from a press spokeswoman at a judicial conference in Gatlinburg.

A political attack was being hatched, and White sourced it within the administration of then-Republican Gov. Don Sundquist.

“None of us had any sense what was happening so we waited at the coffee stand at the Park Vista for (for the spokeswoman) to drive to get a Knoxville News-Sentinel (newspaper) and a Nashville Banner (newspaper) and drive it back up there and figure out what the controversy was about,” White said.

White was portrayed as being soft on capital punishment - an argument being used today against Wade, Lee and Clark.

In 1996, the Tennessee Supreme Court had upheld the conviction of Richard Odom, who committed a rape and murder of an elderly woman in West Tennessee. The court, however, sent Odom’s case back for a new sentencing “in which death was still on the table,” White recalled.

The court ruled that Odom had the right to introduce evidence from his psychiatrist at sentencing, but left the guilty verdict in place.

“I had never sat on a capital case before as a judge. I had only been on the Supreme Court a year and a half. The outcry was I was anti-death penalty,” White said.

Odom, White said, has still not been executed.

“That’s the irony of it all … the citizens thought he should be executed and the way to get him executed was to get rid of me and here we are 20 years later,” she noted.

White’s political opponents created an advocacy group, called the Tennessee Conservative Union, who didn’t raise much money to defeat her.

Instead, White pointed out, the group got free coverage from media outlets.

“They would go into courthouses in groups with police officers, victims’ rights groups and some victims themselves,” White said of the group. “They kept calling press conferences and getting coverage … the (Nashville) Banner kept (the story) alive. … Sound bites and others stated they were voting against me.”

White, however, could not defend herself because the judicial code of ethics kept her from speaking. The Tennessee Supreme Court changed the rule a year later.

“The whole playing field for judicial elections was different than it is today,” she said. “They are now well within their rights to speak out.”

White said she believes Wade, Lee and Clark - all appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen - will be retained.

“I think people know a bully when they see a bully. They see people who are trying to intimidate the courts,” White said. “I think people will remember we founded this country so we could have independent courts and they want impartial courts.”


Information from: Kingsport Times-News, https://www.timesnews.net

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