The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a resolution Tuesday that would change the way the state’s Attorney General and Reporter for Tennessee is selected.
Senate Joint Resolution 1 would make the current process for nominating the attorney general more transparent and give the Tennessee General Assembly a say in the selection through a change to the Tennessee Constitution.
SJR 1 passed the nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday with a 6 to 3 vote.
Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), who is the Senate Republican Caucus Chairman and the sponsor of SJR 1, explained part of the reason for his proposal in a statement issued after Tuesday’s vote.
“This is one of the most important appointed positions in the state. The State Attorney General has over 340 employees and a budget of over $50 million, not to mention the important decisions that are made which affect the lives of the people of Tennessee.”
Yager’s proposal changes the process so that the nomination of the Attorney General by the Supreme Court would be held in an open court and with a recorded vote.
Following the Supreme Court’s nomination, the Tennessee General Assembly would have 60 days to confirm the nomination. The confirmation must be with separate and majority votes by both the House and Senate.
If the General Assembly fails to confirm the Supreme Court’s nominee, the Supreme Court will nominate another person within 60 days.
Yager said that the reason for the two-fold legislation is that “It will provide for a more transparent process in the selection of the nominees. The second is that confirmation by the General Assembly will make the process accountable to the people by giving elected officials a role in the process.”
The Tennessee Constitution of 1870 did originally include accountability to elected officials in the selection of the Attorney General, because at the time Supreme Court judges were required to be elected by the qualified voters of the state.
However, in 2014, an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution removed the direct vote language from Article VI, Section 3.
That change solidified a practice that was in place since 1995 whereby the Governor made appointments to the Supreme Court from a pool of nominees from a Judicial Selection Committee.
In 2014, there were four proposed amendments to the Tennessee Constitution on the November general election ballot, with the change regarding the selection of judges being Amendment 2.
Overshadowed by Amendment 1 that empowered the legislature with regard to abortion statutes and by leaving off the ballot the actual language that was being deleted from the Constitution, Tennessee voters passed the amendment with nearly 61 percent of the vote, according to Ballotpedia.
Amendment 2 took away the original intent of the Tennessee Constitution whereby the qualified voters of the state elected the Supreme Court judges and, in turn, removed an element of accountability with the Court’s appointment of the Attorney General.
Yager’s statement said his proposed constitutional change “adheres to the intention of the authors of our 1870 State Constitution, while keeping intact the current nomination role for the judiciary.”
In accordance with the Tennessee Constitution for making amendments, SJR 1 passed the previous 111th Tennessee General Assembly in 2019. It must now receive a two-thirds majority vote by the current 112th General Assembly to get on the ballot of the next gubernatorial election in 2022.
The amendment would then need to receive a majority of votes cast in the November 2022 gubernatorial election for the change to be made to the Tennessee Constitution.
Senators Mike Bell (R-Riceville), Todd Gardenhire (R-Chattanooga), Sara Kyle (D-Memphis), Kerry Roberts (R-Springfield), Paul Rose (R-Covington) and Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro) voted in favor of SJR 1, while Senators Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol), Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis) and John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) voted against the measure.
SJR 1 was referred to the Senate Calendar Committee to be scheduled for a vote by the full Senate, where it passed in 2019 with a 27 to 3 vote.
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Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.