Tennessee’s first Republican attorney general since Reconstruction is scheduled to take the oath of office Wednesday.
Herb Slatery, who has been serving as Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legal advisor since 2011, was selected by the state Supreme Court earlier this month to succeed Robert E. Cooper, who had served at the post since 2006. Like Slatery, Cooper’s job prior to his appointment was legal counsel to the state’s chief executive, former Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Tennessee is the only state in the country where the justices of the Supreme Court pick the attorney general, whose term in office is eight years. Slatery won out over a field of seven other applicants, which included Cooper, Maryville state Sen. Doug Overbey and Mark Fulks, a Johnson City lawyer who formerly worked as a prosecutor in the state attorney general’s office.
Slatery’s selection has been hailed in Republican circles at the Legislature, particularly by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who launched and helped finance an unsuccessful campaign to defeat the state’s three Democratic Supreme Court justices in the Aug. 7 retention election.
Ramsey had been critical of Cooper for not joining lawsuits filed by other states against the Affordable Care Act. He argued that by replacing the Democrats on the Supreme Court with Republicans, Tennessee would get an attorney general more agreeable to conservatives.
While Ramsey had hinted prior to the Supreme Court’s selection of Slatery last month that his preference to fill the AG slot was another of the applicants for the job, Administrative Office of the Courts Director Bill Young, he applauded the selection of Slatery. “As the first Republican attorney general in Tennessee history, Herbert Slatery will be a strong advocate for the people of Tennessee and a vigilant defender of Tennessee’s conservative reforms,” Ramsey said in a statement after the high court announced it had given Slatery the nod.
Not everyone is as pleased as Ramsey, however. Craig Fitzhugh, the minority leader in the state House of Representatives, accused the Supreme Court of capitulating to Republican pressure in picking the GOP governor’s lawyer for the position over Cooper. Fitzhugh said the court has “shown they are too susceptible to political pressure.”
Likewise, state Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron suggested the Democratic members of the court — Justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark and Sharon Lee, who was sworn in as chief justice on Sept. 17 — betrayed fellow Democrats who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into their retention campaign. “It pains me what they have done,” Herron said of the court.
In a statement he issued after the the Slatery appointment was announced, Fitzhugh also signaled that Democrats may be coming around to a position long held by Republicans — that the state should consider doing away with its idiosyncratic method of selecting an attorney general in favor of a more democratic process.
“I believe it is time to explore our options for giving Tennesseans more power in selecting their attorney general,” said the Ripley Democrat.
Republicans have argued for years that because Tennesseans have been stripped of their ability to directly elect members of the Supreme Court, having the justices pick an attorney general means that the occupant of the office is “twice removed from the people.”
The Supreme Court’s attorney general selection process has also been criticized for a lack of transparency.
Chief Justice Lee promised prior to the court launching its interviews with the applicants that “we will be as open as we can be” during the process. However, while the court did conduct a series of short interviews with the candidates in public on Sept. 8, they later went behind closed doors for further interviews, and their deliberations were done in secret.
Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a longtime critic of the state’s system for picking its most powerful government lawyer, says the Supreme Court’s handling of the process this year once again shows reforms are needed.
“They are more transparent than they were 16 years ago, but they still are not transparent,” Ashe told TNReport. Ashe served from 1968 to 1984 in the Tennessee House of Representatives and then as mayor of Knoxville from 1987 to 2003. “In the past, they were 100 percent transparent. I would say they have gone from 100 percent secret to 80 percent secret,” he said.
Ashe advocates the Legislature extend the state’s open-meetings law to cover the court’s deliberations on attorney general selection.
Slatery’s appointment by the Supreme Court also comes at a time when debates over Tennessee’s selection process for picking state appellate-level judges — including members of the Supreme Court — are coming to a head.
In November voters will be asked to approve an amendment to the state constitution that formally does away with its declaration that “The Judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the State.” That language would be replaced by wording that outlines a new system for choosing appeals judges and justices that resembles the method used by the federal government.