A handful of state Senate Republicans jumped ship and joined ranks with Democrats this week to narrowly defeated a GOP-driven measure to change how the state picks its top lawyer.
The proposed constitutional amendment would have stripped away the Supreme Court’s power to appoint the attorney general and given it to the governor and the Legislature. The measure fell short by one vote Monday after three Republicans voted against the bill and another two refused to weigh in.
“This system, whether you agree with it or don’t, has functioned well, and it’s not time to amend it,” said Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, who voted against the measure. “As others have said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and I respectfully submit that’s the best response to proposals that would change our Constitution.”
The attorney general is too far removed from the people — as is the Supreme Court, which handpicks the AG, said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, the measure’s sponsor. The arrangement makes for a conflict of interest any time the attorney general argues before the state’s highest court, she said.
“I doubt that anyone can say with a straight face that it is fair to have the state’s chief lawyers arguing the most important cases in front of the very members of the court who appointed him,” said Beavers, who chairs the Judiciary Committee.
Republicans in the Senate first turned their attention to the attorney general last year in their frustration over current Attorney General Bob Cooper’s refusal to join a national legal battle against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
Cooper contends that hopping on the bandwagon to fight the so-called “individual-mandate” portion of the health system overhaul would have been a waste of time and money because the issue was already headed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is expected to announce in June a decision in the suit brought by 26 states, the National Federation of Independent Business and two individual plaintiffs.
Attempts last year to require the attorney general to be elected never advanced out of legislative committees. This year’s measure, SJR693, called for the attorney general to be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature to serve six-year terms. The attorney general currently serves eight-year terms.
The measure failed on a 16-15 vote. It needed 17 votes to stay alive, although it would have needed majority approval in the House and a supermajority, or two-thirds support, vote again before the 2014 election when voters would decide the issue.
Republicans voting against the change were Sens. Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville; Doug Overbey of Maryville; Jim Summerville of Dickson. GOP senators who were present but opted against weighing in were retiring Sen. Mike Faulk of Church Hill and Rusty Crowe of Johnson City.