Proposal to Start Electing State AG Stalls

A move to democratize the process for selecting the Tennessee attorney general ran into opposition from prominent Democrats and a Republican on the floor of the state Senate Monday night.

Senate Joint Resolution 698 calls for amending the state constitution to make Tennessee’s top government lawyer a popularly elected, four-year-term officeholder. An amendment to SJR698 stipulates that the attorney general serve only two terms.

Currently, Tennessee’s attorney general is selected by the state Supreme Court to serve an eight-year term.

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, 43 states now pick their top attorney through popular election. In five states — Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Wyoming – the AG is appointed by the governor. In Maine, the attorney general is selected by a secret vote of the legislature.

Tennessee is the only state in the country where the chief legal officer is appointed by the state Supreme Court.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican who is sponsoring SJR698, questioned whether the attorney general can realistically be expected to remain independent in the event he or she is called to argue before the Supreme Court, an “appointed body themselves.”

“The nature of the relationship between the Supreme Court and the attorney general creates a negative public perception concerning the validity of any proceedings when both parties are involved,” said Beavers.

Furthermore, the post of Tennessee attorney general lacks democratic accountability, being “twice removed from the citizens of Tennessee.”

“Currently, the citizens of Tennessee must select a governor, who appoints Supreme Court justices, who in turn appoint the attorney general,” said Beavers. “This process eliminates any possible, practical or substantial check of the attorney general by the people of Tennessee — the general’s main and most important clients.”

At one point during her comments, however, Beavers said she believes “our current attorney general and past attorney generals have done a great and unbiased job.”

And at no point did she indicate that her motivation for pressing SB698 have anything to do with Attorney General Robert E. Cooper’s recent suggestion that the Tennessee Health Freedom Act is unconstitutional. Beavers is a chief sponsor of that legislation, which directs the attorney general to challenge the federal government’s health care overhaul.

Fellow Republican David Overbey, R-Maryville, seized upon Beavers’ uncritical assessment of the job Cooper and his predecessors have done as evidence that SB698 is unwarranted — basically a solution in search of a problem.

“Those words (by Sen. Beavers about Cooper and his forebearers) say to me it ain’t broke and it don’t need fixing,” said Overbey.

Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle stood and said he, too, opposes changing the system of selecting an attorney general, unless the state’s other constitutional officers — secretary of state, treasurer, comptroller and lieutenant governor — also become elected posts.

“The same arguments on (this) resolution are the same arguments you could make for all of our other constitutional officers,” said Kyle.

Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, worried the corrupting pressures of political ambition would be too intense for a popularly elected attorney general to resist. He also called into question the wisdom of allowing voters to directly select the person to represent “the finest client in these parts, named the State of Tennessee.”

“How many of you all, if you were going to pick a lawyer for your personal affairs, would hold a popularity contest?” asked Henry.

Beavers later requested that a vote on the bill be put on hold until Thursday.

Andrea Zelinski produced video for this story.