A former Tennessee judge says the meddling of a Republican lawmaker and his wife was the reason she resigned just nine days after being appointed to take over the court position.
Gov. Bill Lee appointed Huntingdon attorney Jennifer King on Sept. 4 to fill the chancery court vacancy in the 24th Judicial Court. On Sept. 13, King handed Lee her resignation.
“I expected the appointment to be the highlight of my legal career. My appointment soon turned into one of the worst decisions of my life,” King wrote in her resignation letter.
In her letter, King says Republican Rep. Bruce Griffey, of Paris, and his wife, Rebecca, actively attempted to undermine Lee’s decision by working with local GOP county officials to ensure King would not be the party’s chancery nominee in the 2020 election.
Rebecca Griffey had applied for the open chancery position, but was not selected as a top finalist.
King alleged a series of “back door deals” were made to force local GOP officials to hold a caucus to elect a Republican nominee for the judgeship rather than rely on a primary election — the reason being it would be easier to select a preferred nominee using delegates than with an election. King says the GOP and Griffeys broke the Tennessee Republican Party’s bylaws to push the caucus through.
“I became an attorney to serve the people, the real people who work hard every day to support families,” King wrote. “The same real people deserve more from this flawed system than having their county judiciary be a pawn in the hands of a few individuals.”
The letter was first publicized by The Tennessee Journal last week and Lee’s office has since provided the document and others to The Associated Press.
Bruce Griffey on Monday issued a statement describing King’s allegations as “inaccurate and appear based on innuendo and hearsay.”
“(Discussions) regarding holding a caucus were already being held long before Ms. King was nominated by the Governor,” he wrote. “Ms. King was aware and had knowledge that the counties in the district were discussing caucusing before she received her appointment and she accepted the appointment.”
According to records provided by Lee’s administration, Bruce Griffey sent a letter earlier this year urging the governor to select his wife for the position. The first-term Republican lawmaker included a handwritten note that read “Governor, I would be forever in your debt.”
When his wife was not selected as one of the top three judicial nominees, Bruce Griffey then went on the offensive by writing a follow up letter to Lee’s legal counsel, warning that selecting either of the top two male candidates would “look sexist and misogynistic,” and declared King was unfit for the position.
“She has no campaign experience and is unknown in district with inability to win campaign,” Griffey wrote. “Apparently voted in Democrat primaries (approximately) 2000 to 2010 then stopped voting. Only voted GOP in 2018.”
Chancery court judgeships are partisan positions that typically are elected every eight years. However, when an open vacancy occurs, the governor selects from a list of candidates from a judicial selection panel.
Griffey added that Lee would have an “automatic ally” if his wife was appointed but would “lose support in the district” if Lee went with someone else.
In his Monday statement, Griffey did not say whether the governor would continue to have his support.
As a freshman lawmaker, the Republican has not had much political sway inside the GOP-dominated Statehouse. Griffey introduced a slate of immigration bills that failed during the 2019 legislative session. Those unsuccessful proposals range from requiring more Tennessee small business to use the E-Verify program to screen whether workers have legal immigration status to work in the U.S. to requiring people preparing birth certificates to verify that the child parents are in the country legally and mark it on the document.
King later said in an interview with AP that she will likely never apply to be a judge again after her experience with the process. She has since returned to her private legal practice in western Tennessee, which she has run with her husband for 17 years.
“We tell our clients that you will get a fair hearing and a fair trial and here I was right in the middle of a system that I think is flawed,” she said. “I’m happy to be back at my law office to continue to help families.”