The Senate moved closer to changing the state Constitution by calling for the popular election of the attorney general in a Senate Judiciary Committee vote Tuesday.
The committee voted 5-4, basically along party lines, although one Republican, Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville, voted against the measure. Overbey has also voted against such a move in the past.
The resolution moves to the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee.
The resolution passed in the Senate last year but failed in the House. Its prospects of advancement are seen as heightened by the makeup of the current Legislature, where Republicans advocating the move — or something similar — hold a substantial majority.
Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, sponsored the resolution, which would make the attorney general the only other state officeholder other than governor to be elected statewide.
Beavers’ contention is that the attorney general is currently appointed in a process that is “twice removed” from the will of the people.
The state’s attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court. But the impact of the controversial Tennessee Plan, where appellate judges are chosen by the governor from a nominating commission, has altered the debate on the attorney general.
Critics of the current system insist the Tennessee Plan, which subjects Supreme Court judges to retention elections, means the Supreme Court is not duly elected. Merits of the Tennessee Plan itself are also at issue in the current Legislature.
Beavers believes chances for success on the attorney general resolution are good.
“I have confidence that it will pass again in the Senate and a lot of confidence it will pass the House this time,” Beavers said after Tuesday’s vote.
Changing the Constitution is a long process. In order to be approved, both the current Legislature and the next Legislature must pass the measure — by simple majority in the current General Assembly and by a two-thirds vote in the next one. Only then can the issue be put to voters in a referendum in the same year as the next gubernatorial election. So it would be 2014 before the voters could decide.
Some of the enthusiasm for a change appears to lie in the fact Tennessee’s current attorney general, Robert Cooper, has not followed the wishes of Republicans in the Legislature on requests like challenging the federal health care act and for not filing a friend of the court brief on behalf of Tennessee in support of Arizona on immigration law.
Beavers said Tuesday she has heard from Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia Clark that the court does not take a position on the resolution.
Overbey said he believes he is upholding conservative values by opposing the resolution.
“I am a conservative, and to me the conservative approach is the traditional approach,” Overbey said after Tuesday’s vote. “I think the true conservative approach is to look at tradition and say this has been the Tennessee tradition. It’s what has been in the Constitution since 1870.”
Overbey said the people who have served as attorney general have performed well and rendered good service to the state.
Beavers also objects to the nature of the relationship between the attorney general and the Supreme Court, since the attorney general argues cases before the same people who appoint the attorney general.
Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, pointed out in the committee meeting that there has been no corruption in the attorney general’s performance under the current system.
Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, told the committee the current system is the least political and most objective possible. He said an elected official in the position would be subject to political pressures.