The Tennessee Supreme Court has selected Gov. Bill Haslam’s chief legal advisor to serve as the state’s next attorney general.
Herb Slatery, 62, has served as the governor’s point-man on administrative legal matters since Haslam took office in 2011. Prior to that he worked for 30 years at the Knoxville law firm of Egerton, McAfee, Armistead & Davis. There he represented, among other clients, the Knox County Industrial Development Board and the Knoxville-Knox County Public Building Authority.
The court’s decision, announced Monday morning, was said by Chief Justice Sharon Lee to be unanimous among the five members, three Democrats and two Republicans. However, their deliberations on the matter were held in secret. Tennessee is the only state in the country where the Supreme Court appoints an attorney general.
Slatery was one of eight men who applied for the job as the state’s most prominent government lawyer. Other applicants included state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, William E. Young, director of Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts, former solicitor general Mark Fulks, Eugene N. Bulso, Jr, a Nashville business lawyer, Andrew Tillman, a former chancery court judge from the Upper Cumberland region, and Nashville attorney William Helou.
Also applying was Robert Cooper, who served as Tennessee’s attorney general for the last eight years. Prior to Cooper being appointed to the job in 2006, he was chief legal counsel to then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat.
Cooper’s term officially ended Aug. 31, so Slatery’s appointment takes effect immediately.
Monday’s announcement in the Old Supreme Court Chambers at the Capitol came just a week after the court formally launched its process for selecting a new attorney general.
Last Monday, the five justices listened to introductory remarks from the candidates during an open meeting at Legislative Plaza. Afterward, they publicly conducted a series of roughly 15-minute question-and-answer sessions with each of the attorney general applicants, then later interviewed them further behind closed doors.
During his public Q-and-A before the court, Slatery was asked by Chief Justice Lee how he’ll handle potential disagreements that might arise with Haslam. “The governor would, frankly, expect me to do what I think is right. And if I didn’t do what was right he would be really disappointed in me,” Slatery responded. “I am going to shoot straight with him and tell him what I think and tell him what I think is the right way to go on issues.”
Slatery added that it “won’t be the first time we were to disagree on a matter.”
In the formal application he filed with the Supreme Court last month announcing his candidacy, Slatery wrote that “the magnitude of the challenges of being an attorney general is appealing.”
“The idea of assuming that position with the validation of the Court would be an honor, to say the least,” he wrote. Slatery added, “My temperament, my experience in managing a law firm, my knowledge of how the executive branch operates, my familiarity with the budgeting process and financial background, the credibility that I have worked to build with the leaders and members of the General Assembly, and my working relationships with those commissioners leading the departments and agencies all create a set of circumstances that would provide a foundation, from which to successfully carry out my responsibilities.”
Haslam lauded the court’s selection of Slatery. “Herbert is a thoughtful and strategic leader, and I’m confident those same qualities will serve the state well as he assumes his new role,” the governor tweeted.
Likewise, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican from Sullivan County who helped finance an unsuccessful campaign over the summer to unseat the Supreme Court’s three Democratic members, expressed contentment with the prospect of Slatery as attorney general.
“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, the speaker of the GOP-supermajority-controlled Tennessee Senate, said in an emailed statement. “Herbert has served our governor well as chief counsel and I have no doubt that his strong work will continue as he gains over 6 million new clients across the state of Tennessee.”
The feeling that the Supreme Court made the right decision wasn’t necessarily shared by everyone at the Capitol, though. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who’d favored that Cooper be retained for another term, issued a statement accusing the court of rejecting the Democrat “because of his private political affiliation.”
“While the people have shown they can be trusted to preserve the integrity of the courts, the Supreme Court Justices have shown they are too susceptible to political pressure,” wrote Fitzhugh. “This issue must be addressed and I intend to work with Republicans and Democrats to make sure we solve this problem in our next legislative session.”
He indicated he may support “giving Tennesseans more power in selecting their attorney general,” a cause long advocated by some in Republican circles, but generally dismissed as unnecessary by Democrats when it has come up in the past.
According to the National Association of Attorneys General, in 43 states voters choose an attorneys general in direct elections. In fives states, the post is assigned by the governor. In Maine, the attorney general is selected by secret ballot of the state’s legislature.