Tea Party Wants People’s Choice for Top State Litigator

Now that Republicans are firmly in charge of both legislative chambers, members of the Senate majority are hopeful they can take the first official step toward making Tennessee’s most elite lawyer an elected government post.

And that’s good news to state tea party groups.

More than a dozen leaders from various organizations and elements of the populist conservative protest movement across Tennessee met up on Capitol Hill Wednesday to begin lobbying for a short list of priorities, among which is amending the Tennessee Constitution to provide for direct election of the state attorney general.

Tennessee is the only place in the country where the attorney general is appointed by the state’s supreme court.

A handful of Republican lawmakers pushed the issue last year after state Attorney General Robert Cooper declined to cooperate with requests to join a federal law suit challenging the U.S. government’s constitutional authority to require that all citizens obtain health care. The measure passed 19-14 in the Senate last year but stalled in the House of Representatives.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, who carried the bill last session, plans to file an identical version this year.

Beavers has yet to find a member of the House to carry her bill: Last year’s sponsor, Riceville Republican Mike Bell, has graduated to the Senate. But once that matter is addressed, Beavers anticipates GOP dominance will ensure the bill enjoys rather smooth sailing to the governor’s desk.

Because the measure requires changing the state constitution, the same bill, if passed this session, would need to be approved again — but on a two-thirds majority vote — by lawmakers in the 108th General Assembly in 2013 or 2014. The amendment could then be put before Tennessee voters in the 2014 gubernatorial election.

The five-member Supreme Court appointed Attorney General Cooper in 2006. He is serving an eight-year term.

“I think it’s been a popular issue in this last election with the attorney general saying he would not represent the voters of Tennessee in terms of the Health Freedom Act,” said Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “He’s kind of twice removed from the voters.”

Craig Fitzhugh, leader of the badly outnumbered House Democratic Caucus, doesn’t see the current arrangement for selecting the state AG as in any way broken. And therefore it isn’t in need of fixing, he said.

“Hopefully we’re not just talking about this because of one particular decision or non decision by our current attorney general,” said Rep. Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “You don’t want to throw everything away because of one particular decision that an individual makes whether he or she is an attorney general or a legislator or a judge or a governor for that matter.”

The attorney general’s office isn’t too keen on the idea either. Cooper’s spokeswoman, Sharon Curtis-Flair, suggested that an unintended consequence of injecting electoral political considerations directly into the office might be that legislators and the governor’s staff would be reluctant to make requests or share potentially sensitive information with an AG who has a competing political agenda, thus devaluing his or her advice and possibly leading to costly litigation for the state.

Cooper’s office has also floated the argument that the election of an attorney general will merely result in the state getting the best campaign cash collector, and not necessarily the best lawyer for the job.

Those objections aren’t terribly convincing to tea partiers. They perceive that the existing system indeed is flawed — that the attorney general in Tennessee is accountable to nobody in particular, and there’s nothing in place to realistically guard against him operating simply on his own ideological biases with little regard for the wishes of a democratic majority of the people.

“Across the country, Americans have felt that we’ve created a monster and set it loose without being responsive to us. We’re trying to reign it back in, and this is just one little facet of where we feel in Tennessee that an office has run away from the will of the people,” said attorney and Fayette County Tea Party member Hal Rounds.

Another alternative, say tea party leaders, would be for the Legislature to reassign the attorney general’s litigation duties to the solicitor general, who would be elected and would have the authority to enter into law suits, like fighting federal health care reforms, while the attorney general focuses on other activities such as issuing objective legal opinions to lawmakers and the governor.

“We seek either an amendment to the State Constitution that will make the Attorney General installed by a popular vote; or, in the alternative, by reassigning the duty of litigating on behalf of the State to the newly separated office of Solicitor General, which office will be an elected position,” read the Tennessee Tea Party‘s 2011 priority list.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who ran for governor in 2010 with the backing of many Tennessee tea partiers, is an important ally favoring direct elections for attorney general. Ramsey said he’s also intrigued by the group’s solicitor general revamp idea, but stopped short of endorsing it, saying he needed more time to study the issue.

Electing the attorney general is one of the top issues on the tea party agendas all across Tennessee — along with pushing the state to take aggressive steps to wean itself off federal subsidies, resist unfunded or what many consider unconstitutional federal mandates, better enforce and abide by constitutional law in general, and more thoroughly educate public school students about American history, government and the ideals of the nation’s founders.