A proposal to alter the state constitution to make the Tennessee attorney general a popularly elected post has once again failed to pass in the state Senate.
Senate Joint Resolution 123, sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers, already came up short once this session. On Feb. 5 those who voted “aye” outnumbered the noes, 15-14. However, that wasn’t enough support to meet the 17-vote minimum “constitutional majority” of the body required for passage.
On Thursday, SJR123 actually did worse than the first time. Like the vote last month, 15 senators voted in favor, but 16 voted against it this time.
There’d been speculation that a couple senators, Republican Mark Green of Clarksville and Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, might vote yes and push the elect-the-AG amendment over the top.
Green, who is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment of his own to alter the attorney general selection process — his would grant that power to state legislators — ended up voting no Thursday, as he did on Feb. 5.
Kyle, who is running for judge in Shelby County, did vote yes this time, However, Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who like Kyle did not vote on Feb. 5, voted no Thursday. And Ophelia Ford, D-Memphis, switched from a yes last time to a no this time.
Green agrees that having the state attorney general picked by the Supreme Court creates a conflict of interest. But he also worries that making the attorney general run for office statewide will have the effect of attracting people who have higher political aspirations.
“In states where the attorney general runs statewide, the attorney general oftentimes ends up not representing the people very well because they have quit halfway through their session to go run for governor, and that is not what is in the best interest of the people,” Green said during debate on SJR123 Thursday.
Green said the attorney general should be “as unbiased as possible,” and said the state’s Legislature-driven system of picking “constitutional officers” — the comptroller, secretary of state and treasurer — works best to ensure political neutrality is maintained to the highest degree possible.
Tennessee is the only state in the country that has empowered its Supreme Court to appoint the attorney general. Forty-three states have popularly elected attorney generals and the rest have some form or combination of gubernatorial and legislative appointment.
Beavers argued, as she has in the past, that in the current system the attorney general is unaccountable to the people. Establishing direct elections would be the best way to make the officeholder directly answerable to the citizenry, she said.
“If the attorney general is supposed to be the attorney for the people of the state of Tennessee, then it doesn’t make much sense to me that he or she is twice removed from the citizens of Tennessee,” said Beavers. “Currently, the citizens of Tennessee must select a governor, who appoints his Supreme Court justices, who then in turn appoint the attorney general. This process eliminates any substantial or practical check of the attorney general by the people of Tennessee, the general’s main and most important clients.”
Doug Overbey, a Republican from Maryville, reiterated a version of his standard “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” line against altering the attorney general selection process in any way.
“Unless it can be demonstrated that there is a problem in the way we have selected an attorney general since the constitutional convention of 1870, then we should not be changing it,” said Overbey. He went on to suggest that past attorneys general for the state have shown a lot of independence and courage in their willingness to pursue what they believe to be in the state’s best legal interests irrespective of partisan political considerations.
“The beauty of our federal system is that Tennessee does not have to follow the trend and elect its attorney general just because other states do,” said Overbey. “That is a decision where our state is sovereign. We may have the only system of selecting the attorney general the way our attorney general is selected, but it may just be that…the framers of the 1870 constitution got it right.”
Beavers responded, “Maybe the framers of the 1870 constitution thought that was a good way to appoint the attorney general, but things changed in the 1970s when we started the Tennessee Plan.”