Out of the five contested judicial races in Knox County, there are two that have drawn more scrutiny and upset than the others. One is Republican Bill Ailor’s challenge of Circuit Court judge Harold Wimberly, who has been on the bench since 1987. The other is Republican Clarence Pridemore’s attempt to replace Chancellor Daryl Fansler, who was first elected in 1998.
There’s plenty of interest in the 4th Circuit Court race, too, where Democrat Daniel Kidd is battling Republican Greg McMillan over the opportunity to replace longtime judge Bill Swann in the court that handles most of the divorces in the county.
Still, it’s the first two that have many local lawyers up in arms (metaphorically speaking, at least). They’re convinced that there’s only one reason Ailor and Pridemore are running—the Tennessee Republican Party’s “Red to the Roots” campaign.
The push by GOP chairman Chris Devaney and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to get a Republican candidate on the ballot in every single race in the state with a Democratic incumbent has resulted in more Republicans on local ballots in 2014 than ever before. A February press release announcing the plan’s success calls it the next step in “the voter-led Republican conversion of Tennessee.”
“Tennesseans want the success we’ve seen at the state level—be it our record on economic development, our historic gains in the classroom, or any number of other achievements—brought to the local level. They’re tired of Democrats and liberals who hide behind the Independent label mismanaging taxpayer funds,” Devaney comments in the release.
But when it comes to judicial races, does Tennessee’s “economic development” or “historic gains in the classroom” under Gov. Bill Haslam (“achievements” that are questioned by many, we should note) even matter? Shouldn’t the main qualification for a good judge be someone who understands the law, not how someone votes?
“In the 30-something years I’ve been practicing law, it’s never been a partisan issue in judicial races,” Fansler says. “I’ve been totally out of politics for 16 years, and now I find myself thrust back in it. I don’t want to be, but I am.”
Chancellor, Part II
Fansler, 62, was elected to the bench in Chancery Court 16 years ago. By most accounts, he’s done a good job in a very complicated court—he was recently endorsed by 26 past presidents of the Knoxville Bar Association.
“I haven’t gotten many complaints. Even the losers will say they got a fair trial,” Fansler says.
Chancery Court is unique in that it handles a wide range of thorny legal issues like boundary disputes, intricate probates, divorces, contracts, and certain other lawsuits. One local lawyer, a Republican, told us, when describing the difficulty of the position, “I’ve been practicing for more than a decade, and there’s no way I know enough law to do that job.”
Nonetheless, Fansler’s opponent is confident he can do the job with less than four years of legal experience. Pridemore, 39, declined an interview, stating he was too busy, and he did not return repeated phone calls. However, he did e-mail the following statement that says his “Top Priorities” are:
“1) To treat each and every person that comes before Chancery Court, be it the newest attorney in town, the oldest attorney in town or a person representing themselves, with the same amount of dignity and respect
“2) To help alleviate the backlog of divorce cases in the Knox County Court system by offering to hear additional divorce cases in Chancery Court.”
When we read this statement to Fansler, he almost laughed.
“That shows the absolute ignorance he has about this court. We three chancellors have been, for the 16 years I’ve been on the bench, taking every divorce case filed in chancery court. We hear as many divorce cases between the three of us as the 4th Circuit does,” Fansler says. “I’m not going sugarcoat that—if he makes that statement, it tells me he knows absolutely nothing about what we do.”
We called Knox County GOP chair Ruthie Kuhlman to ask if she recruited Pridemore to be on the ballot; she declined to comment. But the deputy executive director of the state party, Michael Sullivan, was willing to talk.
Sullivan says having a Republican candidate in every race will “push to help voters help educate themselves” and “helps voters understand who’s in the office.” He says judicial positions are “more than just deciding a court case,” and having a party affiliation lets voters know that the candidates are likely to support issues important to them.
Like what? Like taxes.
Sullivan says since the Republican Party is opposed to higher taxes and in favor of efficient government, voters can trust a Republican judicial candidate will be a wiser steward of taxpayer money in the court system than a Democratic candidate.
“That is a generalization that voters can make, yes,” Sullivan says.
We asked Sullivan if a knowledge of the law might be a more important factor when evaluating judicial candidates than an opposition to raising taxes. He replied that it’s “up to voters to decide who’s qualified.” We told Sullivan that Pridemore doesn’t seem to understand what actually happens in the court over which he wants to preside. His response: Pridemore meets the state requirements to run for the office, so he’s qualified to serve in the office.
Meanwhile, Fansler’s hoping to get enough Republican support to stay in office.
“I think even lawyers who are heavily involved in Republican party politics realize that partisan politics don’t have a place in what we do,” Fansler says. “A former Republican county officeholder—who I won’t name, but he’s not a lawyer—approached me and said, ‘My family and I will be supporting you. This young man needs to learn this is not an entry-level position.' I think people see that.”