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VOL. 126 | NO. 23 | Thursday, February 03, 2011

How Attorney General Chosen Up for Debate

By Andy Meek

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The chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, a former chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party and the president of the American Bar Association don’t have words of support for Tennessee lawmakers who want to change the way the state taps an attorney general.

There’s a growing movement afoot to see the state attorney general elected by voters instead of appointed by the state Supreme Court.

Although he declined to share an opinion on the matter, ABA president Stephen Zack during a visit to Memphis this week said the issue is important enough that he wants the judicial independence committee of the ABA to look at the issue.

He shared that comment following a speech to the Memphis Rotary Club that included among its themes a warning against the rise of attacks against the judiciary in the U.S. He also lamented the rising influence of big money in judicial elections.

That’s partly what’s worrying critics of a move by Tennessee lawmakers to change the appointment process for the state’s top lawyer. Bills have begun to be filed in Nashville that would strip the choice from the Supreme Court and give it to voters, a change whose proponents have been emboldened by judicial challenges to the recent health care reform legislation.

Tennessee’s attorney general declined to side with attorneys general from other states who have joined legal challenges to the controversial legislation.

Ron Ramsey, the state’s lieutenant governor and speaker of the Senate, is among those who have called for the attorney general to stand for direct election. New Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has said such a move might infuse the office with a political tinge but that he won’t stand in the way of Republicans pressing the issue.

Some lawmakers trace their interest in the matter to the health care law.

Tennessee tea party activists have presented legislative priorities for 2011 to state lawmakers that include making the attorney general an elected position.

Their explanation of that priority reportedly includes the current state attorney general’s rejection of “the call of the people and the General Assembly to join Tennessee with other states in contesting the constitutionality of federal mandates, including ‘Obamacare.’”

Shelby County GOP Chairman and attorney Lang Wiseman, meanwhile, thinks the idea of giving the selection over to voters is the wrong move, and he has an alternative.

“I think the politicization of the government’s arm to enforce the law is not a good thing,” Wiseman said. “Having said that, I think having the Supreme Court appoint the attorney general is probably not good either.

“I tend to side with the prevailing view of the Founding Fathers, who understood that enforcing the law is an executive function and needs to be within the executive branch.”

(For more on Wiseman, see the Memphis Law Talk, Page 3.)

Former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Houston Gordon, who like Wiseman is also an attorney, agrees that voters selecting the attorney general is not the way to go.

“I think the way the attorney general has been selected by the Supreme Court insulates that position from politics,” Gordon said. “If we make it an elected position, you’re going to have people using that as a springboard for higher office.”

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