As the new Republican legislature eases into its first legislative session under Gov. Bill Haslam, some lawmakers are trying to make fast use of their overwhelming majority. In an opening act of sorts, state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, has introduced legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to popularly elect the state’s attorney general.
The Tennessee Supreme Court appointed Robert Cooper, former legal counsel to Gov. Phil Bredesen, to the office in 2006. Cooper angered many Tennessee Republicans by refusing to join other states in filing a lawsuit against the health care plan championed by President Barack Obama, saying that a challenge to the law was pointless because of the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which gives the federal government authority over state governments. In other words, he considered it frivolous.
Not to be outmaneuvered on the matter, Beavers filed Senate Joint Resolution 698 that would change the state constitution to make future attorneys general more beholden to the public whim.
“Tennessee is the only state in the nation that allows the State Supreme Court to select the attorney general,” said Beavers, who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “Forty-three states already select their attorney generals through popular election, and it is time for this General Assembly to also show their confidence in the collective wisdom of the people of Tennessee. I am very encouraged that the recent change in membership of the General Assembly will give this resolution an excellent chance for passage.”
Beavers’ resolution would allow a popular election for that office every four years. The amendment process would require approval by both the 107th General Assembly and the 108th, which will take office in 2013. If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in 2014.
Former Attorney General Paul Summers, now a partner at the Nashville law firm Waller Lansden Dortch and Davis, tells The City Paper, “I can’t say I agree with what they want to do, but I do agree with the procedure.”
Among the arguments proponents of the legislation offer is that by being appointed to eight-year terms by the Tennessee Supreme Court, the attorney general and the court are compromised by favoritism.
Not so, according to Summers.
"There is nothing unusual or unethical about a judge appointing a lawyer in a proceeding,” he says. “Every public defender, every special prosecutor, are appointed by a judge, and judges sit every day where the state of Tennessee is the litigant and they are appointed by the state.
“The beauty of our system,” Summers continued, “is that you are not beholden to the Supreme Court. You can be impeached by the Tennessee General Assembly, the court has no say over your office, and in my experience I have never seen the court show favoritism one way or another.”
While fears about the politicization of the office are likely legitimate to some degree, Summers said a bigger problem is creating a sort of congressional effect — that is, a constant, costly campaign.
“From the moment [those in the 43 states that elect their attorneys general] took office, they told me they would open up two shops, one to do the job and the other to get elected again or prepare to run for governor,” he said. “Colloquially, the ‘National Association of Attorneys General’ is referred to as the ‘National Association of Aspiring Governors.’ ”
Recent campaigns for attorney general in nearby states ran into the millions of dollars. For example, the 2010 election in Georgia cost more than $3.6 million combined. That figure does not include independent expenditures from labor unions and corporate entities that poured untold financial resources into the race.