The Republican dominated General Assembly has already moved the appointment of judges to the Governor and if they have their way this legislative session, they will continue to keep the selection of the state’s chief law enforcement officer out of the reach of Tennessee voters as well.
Forty-three states elect their Attorney General.
Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), chief sponsor of Senate Joint Resolution 611 which partially reforms selection of the State Attorney General, has previously stated that selecting an AG through popular election is the least-preferred method of selection
Yager’s resolution would instead require the General Assembly to confirm the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Attorney General nominee and if rejected, require the court to submit another nominee. The AG’s term would also be reduced from eight years to four years.
In the past, the state’s Supreme Court has held a public hearing during which lawyers applying for the AG position made presentations in open court. However, most of the court’s process is kept from public view. Judges conduct private interviews of the candidates and there is no record of how they vote on the AG nominee.
Yager’s resolution would open the Supreme Court’s process – “[t]he nomination shall be made by the Supreme Court in open court and with recorded votes.”
After a 2014 amendment to the Tennessee Constitution was approved in a statewide ballot, the governor appoints and the legislature confirms Supreme Court nominees who serve an eight-year term and may then choose to run in a retention election. These changes make opening the Supreme Court’s process of selecting an AG more relevant and perhaps, more political.
The Tennessee Star asked Sen. Yager whether politics could be removed from the AG selection process. An earlier press release was forwarded in response:
A resolution giving voters an opportunity to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to change the process in which the state’s Attorney General (AG) is selected was recommended for adoption by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. Senate Joint Resolution 611, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), calls for an open nomination process by the Tennessee Supreme Court, followed by a confirmation vote of the nominee by a majority of both houses of the Tennessee General Assembly.
‘The reason for this legislation is two-fold,’ said Sen. Yager. ‘It will provide for a more transparent process in the selection of nominees. The second is that confirmation by the General Assembly will make the process more broad-based and accountable, giving elected officials a role in the process. It also keeps intact a role for the judiciary in the process.’
The Tennessee Supreme Court’s votes regarding the attorney general nominees are not currently disclosed to the public. Since the state’s Supreme Court justices are selected by the governor, the people have no elected representatives currently involved in the process.
The resolution would require the votes of the Supreme Court justices to be held in open court, with recorded votes. Once the nomination is made, the legislature would have sixty days to go through the confirmation process. In the event that the candidate is rejected, then the Supreme Court would have another opportunity to make the nomination.
In addition, the measure would require that the Attorney General be at least thirty years old, a citizen of the United States, an attorney duly licensed in this state and a resident of this state for at least five years immediately preceding nomination by the Supreme Court. It would also decrease the term of the attorney general from eight years to six
Currently, Tennessee is the only state in which the state’s Supreme Court appoints the attorney general. The attorney general is directly elected in 43 states, appointed by the governor in five states, and elected by the state legislature in one state.
Prior to being selected as Attorney General in 2014 by the Supreme Court, Slatery served as Haslam’s chief legal counsel. During his tenure as AG, Slatery has refused to sue the federal government in connection with the refugee resettlement program and has pushed the state to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.
After joining the 25-state lawsuit over DACA, Slatery withdrew from the lawsuit choosing instead to promote amnesty for illegal immigrants in the state.
Even if Yager’s resolution is approved by the current General Assembly, it still faces a multi-year process before it reaches voters.