Harwell Balks at Backing Elect-the-AG Bill Without Further Study

The newly elected speaker of the state House of Representatives says she hasn’t decided yet whether she thinks it’s a good idea to let Tennessee voters elect the state’s attorney general.

Senate GOP lawmakers are promising to pass a constitutional-amendment bill this year that attempts to do that, like they did last session.

“I haven’t taken a position yet,” said House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville. “That’s one of those issues I’d like to see the Legislature address and vet, and get information from a number of parties, and hopefully we’ll come up with a decision for the state.”

Attorney General Bob Cooper exasperated Republicans last session after repeatedly refusing to join other state attorneys general in lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the federal health care reform package’s mandate that individuals obtain medical insurance.

In response, Sen. Mae Beavers, a Mt. Juliet Republican, sponsored a bill that would have put the wheels in motion to require that the AG post become an elected position.

Her bill cruised in the Senate but languished in a House committee. Beavers, assigned once again to head the Senate Judiciary Committee, is restarting the years-long constitutional amendment process to elect an AG anew this year — not to mention refiling last year’s failed Health Freedom Act, which seeks to defend individuals against the insurance mandate.

But Harwell wants to look long and hard at issues surrounding a rewrite of AG-related provisions in the state constitution before endorsing the amendment effort.

She also told TNReport she’s willing to give a listen to an alternative suggestion offered by Tennessee tea party members to recast the solicitor general as the state’s chief litigator, rather than the AG. The solicitor general — who, under tea party leaders’ plan, would also be elected — would then be the one to determine when the state should or should not take legal action in a particular situation.

“That’s actually a very interesting idea and something that I would be open to and looking in to. Again, I have to look into all the technicalities of it, the constitutionality of it, but it’s certainly an interesting concept I’d be interested in looking at,” said Harwell, who was among the lawmakers tea party members met with on Capitol Hill Wednesday.