Victor Ashe noted in his weekly column that Diane Black is the only gubernatorial candidate who supports bringing more transparency to the attorney general selection process.
The Black campaign touted Ashe’s column in a press release.
The former Knoxville mayor wrote in the Knoxville News-Sentinel that Democratic candidates Craig Fitzhugh and Karl Dean, along with Republicans Beth Harwell (state House speaker) and Randy Boyd all said they support the status quo.
Ashe wrote, “Surprisingly, no one is a change agent here as the selection process for state AG is unique to Tennessee with the Supreme Court (only five people) meeting behind closed doors once every eight years to pick a Tennessean to be the chief legal officer. The open meetings laws do not apply to this meeting of a public body.”
Black supports voter input
Black, however, believes the voters should have a say.
“Whether through direct election or legislative appointment, Diane supports changing this process and will push for that change as governor.”
Tennessee’s attorney general is Republican Herbert H. Slatery III. He was sworn in as the attorney general and reporter on Oct. 1, 2014, according to the attorney general’s website. Prior to his appointment, Slatery served as counsel to Gov. Bill Haslam from 2011-2014.
Tennessee is unique in that the attorney general is appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court, rather than by the governor, according to Ballotpedia.
Efforts fail time after time
The state’s method has been a subject of debate for years.
Gavel to Gavel, a website reporting on legislature action affecting courts, reports Tennessee has seen numerous attempts over two decades to change the selection process, all to no avail.
Tennessee’s method of selecting the attorney general is tilted against Republicans, wrote J. Ammon Smartt and Keith W. Randall in 2011 in a white paper for The Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies. That was written before Slattery’s term.
The process is: “Under the Tennessee Constitution, attorneys general are selected by the justices of the Supreme Court of Tennessee for eight-year terms with no limit on term renewals. Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court, in turn, are selected by a version of the Missouri Plan known as the ‘Tennessee Plan,’ which calls for the governor to fill vacancies on the court from a list of three judges submitted by a nominating commission composed primarily of lawyers. After a period of time, the justices on the court are subject to retention referenda where voters are asked whether to retain the justices.”
The justification for the Tennessee Plan is that the justices’ selection will be free from politics.
However, the state’s attorney general selection leans more toward the Democrats, the paper states, but it does not try to answer if that is good or bad. The period between 1970 and 2011 saw nine attorneys general, all of whom were Democrats. That contrasted with statewide voting patterns that at the time were split between the two parties.
The paper concludes, “Tennessee attorneys general are not subject to elections or political appointment, and the state Supreme Court’s appointment of attorneys general has yielded attorneys general whose party affiliation is rather different than the other officials voters have elected. Some believe these outcomes are simply proof that the selection process is serving its purpose of maintaining a nonpartisan environment. Others believe that an increased level of political or electoral influence is essential because the attorney general’s decisions could have a significant and long-standing impact on everything from the state’s economic climate to its obligations under federal law.”