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Amendment for Popular Election of State Attorney General Falls Short in Senate

The Tennessee Senate failed Wednesday to approve a proposal to let voters pick who serves as the state’s most powerful lawyer.

The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 123, is a constitutional amendment sponsored by Mt. Juliet Republican Mae Beavers. It calls for contested statewide elections for attorney general beginning in 2020.

The upper chamber’s vote on SJR123 was 15 in favor and 14 opposed. One senator, Republican Randy McNally of Oak Ridge, abstained. The resolution needed 17 votes to win passage. Three senators didn’t vote: Republicans Janice Bowling and Todd Gardenhire, of Tullahoma and Chattanooga, respectively, and Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

According to the Senate clerk, because SJR123 wasn’t defeated outright with at least 17 senators voting “no,” it is technically still alive and could be brought up for a floor vote again this session if Beavers requests it. In the event that happens and it is approved, SJR123 would have to pass by a two-thirds majority in the next legislative session and then win in a statewide referendum.

Another measure that proposes altering the attorney general selection process passed last year in the Senate, 22-9. It awaits action in the House. That proposal, SJR196 by Clarksville Republican Mark Green, would rewrite the state’s constitution to allow for the Legislature to appoint the attorney general.

SJR196 states, “Beginning January 2019, and every four year thereafter, an attorney general and reporter for the state shall be appointed by joint vote of both houses of the General Assembly and shall hold office for a term of four years and until a successor is appointed.”

If it is approved in the House, that measure, too, must win passage next session by two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate and subsequently go before the voters.

Presently under the state constitution, the Tennessee Supreme Court appoints the attorney general to terms of eight years. The term of Robert Cooper, who currently holds the office, expires this year.

According to the National Association of Attorneys General, Tennessee is the only state in which the holder of the office is appointed by the state Supreme Court. Forty-three states elect their attorneys general. In fives state the post is assigned by the governor and in Maine the attorney general is selected by secret ballot of the state’s legislature.