State Republicans move to make attorney general an elected office

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 10:05pm

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. 

14 Comments on this post:

By: treehugger7 on 2/2/11 at 7:27

It's worked well for us all these years. No constant campaigning--the attorney general can concentrate on state business. Just because the TP'ers disagree with one decision is not a reason to change a good system. An attorney general who has to campaign and find money to run is not impartial. Look at some of the contests across the country. I truly hope the repubs don't make a mess of this too! You might elect your pandering republican AG, and it still might not go your way.

By: Alphadog7 on 2/2/11 at 8:03

Treehugger, what are you worried about? You will have one vote for AG like the rest of us.

By: govskeptic on 2/2/11 at 8:07

This is an extremely long overdue piece of legislation that needs
to be passed. I'm sure one decision didn't not bring about this bill
even though the article wants to portray it as such. Our current
system only serves the interest of the Judicary in this state and
does nothing for the average citizen as the position does in the
other 49 states. Attempts to make it appear the position is
beyond the Voters Ability to make good decisions on it being
an elected position only continues to serve the "eliets and
establishemnt" of the state. We have the fewest statewide
elected positions of any state in the nation, only 3! Make the change!

By: treehugger7 on 2/2/11 at 8:28

And you better beleive I will use it!!

By: Nitzche on 2/2/11 at 8:52

There is a new day acoming Democrats! Wait til ole Jim Cooper will be running for re-election in Franklin.. Jim, we hardly knew ya!

By: tpaine on 2/2/11 at 10:01

Our current system makes zero sense. Who is the Attorney General beholden to now? This particular Attorney General simply shows that arrogance isn't confined to Washington D.C. He should be elected by "we, the people" like every other statewide official.

By: GUARDIAN on 2/2/11 at 12:32

GUARDIAN-At last. :):):):):)

By: pswindle on 2/2/11 at 12:55

JIm Cooper is one of the smartest men in congress. Let's go ahead and elect more air-heads like Marsha Blackburn. We have a governor that is like little boy lost, and all of the other new congresman that the GOP sent to Washington will prove to be a joke. The Tea Party is taking over TN.

By: PromosFriend on 2/2/11 at 1:39

The Attorney General's job is the law, it is not about getting elected by the prevailing whim of the electorate in any given year. And, the point about costly elections is well taken. There is a strong case to be made that an AG elected by popular vote would then be more likely to be make stupid promises to get elected and/or be beholdened to the fat wallets that contributed to his/her campaign.

By: govskeptic on 2/3/11 at 7:58

What's wrong with an elected AG that promises to uphold the
law and look out for the interest of the citizens/voters versus
one that's appointed and is expected to look after the
'Status Quo" and interest of the Judicary and Establishment?

By: ncpreader on 2/3/11 at 9:36

$10 billion per month spent in Afghanistan to help overthrow the crazies. There is our real problem.
Thanks Dub, YOU IDIOT. You let me down !

By: justice2003 on 2/3/11 at 11:09

I don't agree with mr.beavers resolution apointing the tennessee supreme court to an eight year deal along with the attorney generals because of the favoritism eighter.I don't believe that any state republicans in this state should play a role in the whole state of tennessee even making desicions because members of the tennessee legeslation board railroaded me back in the year 2003 and they know what they did.In the tennessee supreme court ruling,they commited PURGURY and MISCONDUCT sec. 2-19-104 code sec. 3-19-104 sec. 2--19-105 code of oath that i read while i was fighting for realease do to incarseration in the month day and year oct.1, of thier comrads tried to hide these facts and when i got out of jail,i filed a federal lawsuit in which the judge GRANTED me three to proceed in Forma Pauperis i am not a lawyer and i don't know anything about the law but only what i learned in jail along with the inmates when i was arrested on an Outstanding Warrent four years latter and did 32plus days on the same day they took me for treatment at Middle Tennessee Mental Health.and the strangest thing about this outcome is that the captain at the time is now an assistant chief of police who has reacentely promoted.I can sit around here all day and give you my opionion about whats really going on and plenty of people who plays a bigger role in the inside the jailhouse as well.Back in the year 2003 there was a Divinity professor who was put in jail by the metro police department do to there hireing practices and he recieved an civil rights award,wheres mine.?! I was to,But the only thing i recieved was a free bus ride home back to my home state Memphis.And you what to know why members of the legeslative board are trying to tere down the fairgrounds and making sure that there votes stick i'll tell you,Because they know that a homeless indevisual like myself who believes in my civil rights and is going to fight to the very end and is going to make sure that it doesn't.They are only doing this to take away the homeless voices in this area.As a homeless man,people talk.It's a good thing that im on the advisory board and have been on the Nashville Homeless Power Progect since 2003.At the time i tried to seek help,I went to the homeless commission and was turd away by a tall man with a cowboy hat saying (GO AWAY mr. whoever he was,DON't want to see you he said.)Right about now,i wish FREAD TOHMAS can represent me in what i started on seeking Justice since to what i read is dealing with him also.I have to admit,I really don't know anything about computers but if its dealing with the state i was raised in,and the rest of our states,i really think they should suffer and go through the same thing and experince

By: pswindle on 2/3/11 at 5:06


By: minuet on 2/16/11 at 5:15

This system has worked like a charm for Tennessee for decades. We have had a series of stable, responsible attorneys general who were more interested in properly interpreting the law and protecting the interests of the state than in pandering to various political interests.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.