Tennessee Republican leaders agree to drop judges from mandatory candidate fees for now amid ethics ruling

·4 min read

Dec. 15—NASHVILLE — Tennessee Republican Party leaders have decided for now to drop judges and judicial candidates from a rule they adopted earlier this year that requires GOP candidates running for office to pay the party a fee to run in primary elections, state party Chairman Scott Golden said.

The decision came as judges, including some from Hamilton County, have fretted for months over paying the fee to the party because of a Sept. 7 legal advisory opinion issued by the Administrative Office of the Court's Judicial Ethics Committee.

The seven-judge panel wrote that one of the rules of judicial conduct "generally prohibits a judge from paying an assessment to a political organization." And two accompanying rules "contain no exception for judges or judicial candidates," the opinion states.

Republican State Executive Committee members discussed the issue at length during their Dec. 4 meeting but took no immediate action. Some members argued that while judicial ethics may prohibit judges and judicial candidates from paying the fee, state law does not.

"We had an electronic vote that concluded [Monday] and the removal for the judges [from the rule] was passed. No high drama," Golden said in a telephone interview Monday evening with the Times Free Press.

The new party rule, adopted by the State Executive Committee earlier this year, mandates GOP candidates for offices ranging from constable to governor and U.S. Senate pay for the privilege of running as a GOP candidate in an increasingly Republican-dominated state.

Republican judges and state House candidates were required to pay $500.

GOP candidates for county constable and commission pay the least amount, $25, while candidates for countywide offices such as mayor or clerks pay $100. State Senate candidates will pay $1,000, while candidates for Congress pay $2,500. At the top are GOP candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, who pay a $5,000 fee.

Golden said the 66-member State Executive Committee decided to act because this coming Monday is the last day to pick up petitions to run.

"We needed to have some finality on that," Golden said. "So it was a motion by the chair of our Bylaws Committee to remove the judges" from having to pay the fee.

Golden said the committee needed 34 votes to do that. At last count, he said, it received 42 yes votes to remove judges from the fee requirement.

He said some members felt the party "should hang in."

"Obviously, we will continue to explore it and work through the legal stuff on that side. But as of now, we know that judges need to get the petitions in their hands so we have some finality to that so we'll continue to move on to the next one [future election]."

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, got involved in the issue after state judges in Hamilton County raised concerns to him. He introduced two bills, one requiring elections for Chancery Court, Circuit Court, Criminal Court and courts of record to be nonpartisan going forward. The bill also would prohibit a political party from requiring a person to pay a fee in order to run as that political party's candidate for public office.

A second Gardenhire bill applies only to making chancery, circuit and criminal courts as well as other courts of record nonpartisan.

"I think it was finally wise of the committee to realize that their cookie-cutter approach to this wasn't appropriate, and they finally came to their senses and excluded judicial candidates and judges from this outrageous fee structure," Gardenhire told the Times Free Press on Tuesday by telephone.

Gardenhire said that beyond removing judges from the fee, he also thinks the state GOP ought to make "some accommodations to people for those who generously give time and money on behalf of other Republican candidates and somehow not be so dogmatic in their approach to raise money.

"I just find it highly objectionable to all of a sudden not be a Republican because I didn't pay a fee," Gardenhire said. "I just object that now I'm not a Republican if I don't pay a fee when I've been very generous in supporting Republicans for half a century."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.