Death of Justice could mean more conservative Tennessee Supreme Court

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Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, a trailblazer who sat on the high court for 16 years, died last week.

  • Clark was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. She earned a reputation as an inquisitive and passionate jurist with a zest for the law.

  • She was also the first woman to serve as a judge in a rural Tennessee county.

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What they're saying: "Connie Clark was a role model to women, girls, and all people in Nashville and throughout Tennessee," the YWCA of Middle Tennessee said.

  • Former Gov. Phil Bredesen, who put Clark on the court in 2005, told The Tennessean that "her reputation for fairness and grace offers a model for anyone seeking to serve the public."

Clark will lie in state in the Tennessee Capitol Wednesday from 10am to 2pm.

The big picture: Gov. Bill Lee is now tasked with appointing a replacement for Justice Clark, which creates the possibility for Tennessee's highest court to shift further to the right.

What it means: The Supreme Court was composed of two Democrat-appointed justices (Justice Clark and Justice Sharon Lee) and three appointed by Republicans ( Justice Jeffrey Bivins, Justice Holly Kirby, and Chief Justice Roger Page).

  • Hanging in the balance is a lawsuit from Metro challenging Gov. Lee's education voucher law, which was struck down by a lower court and upheld on appeal. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this year.

What they're saying: Prominent Nashville attorney Charles Robert Bone, a Democrat, offered two possible appointees currently employed by the Lee administration: Brandon Gibson, chief operating officer for the governor's office, and Lang Wiseman, deputy to the governor and chief counsel.

  • "With this being Gov. Lee's first nomination to the Supreme Court and moving the court to a 4-1 Republican majority, it will be interesting to see the approach that the administration takes," Bone told Axios.

  • "The governor clearly has at least two potential justices within his office – both of which would be highly qualified and neither viewed as overtly partisan."

Context: The political composition of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals has been the subject of intense interest by Tennessee Republicans.

  • In 2014, then-Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey ran a campaign to defeat three Supreme Court justices in their retention elections. Ramsey failed and all three Democrats were retained by voters.

What's next: The Supreme Court will meet in the coming days to decide how to handle pending cases that were heard while Justice Clark was on the bench.

  • In a statement to Axios, the court said it would "determine what action, if any, is necessary to take as a result of the vacancy Justice Clark's passing leaves on the Court."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Associate Justice Jeffrey Bivins as the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Roger Page became chief justice on Sept. 1, succeeding Bivins.

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