Senate Defeats Proposal to Elect Attorney General

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – The Senate on Wednesday defeated an effort to change the Tennessee constitution to require the popular election of the attorney general.

The measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet received 15 votes in favor and 14 votes against. Proposals need at least 17 votes – a majority of the 33-member chamber – to pass.

Beavers argued that the current system of having the state's chief legal officer appointed to an eight-year term by the Supreme Court is "twice removed from the people" because justices don't have to stand for contested elections.

Opponents of Beavers' proposal argued that it conflicts with a resolution passed by the chamber last year that would give the Legislature the power to appoint the attorney general.

The sponsor of that proposal, Republican Sen. Mark Green of Clarksville, argued that making the attorney general an elected position would require candidates to seek heavy campaign contributions that could threaten the nonpartisan and independent nature of the office. Elected attorney generals, which are the case in several states, also often decide to run for governor, he said.

"Once they are taking money, it is a conflict of interest," Green said.

Green's measure to allow lawmakers to choose the attorney general passed 22-9 last year. It would have to pass the House this year, and both chambers by a two-thirds majority in the next two-year session in order to be placed before voters in 2018.

Sen. Doug Overbey, who voted against holding contested elections for attorneys general, said proponents have not been able to point out any instances of "misfeasance, nonfeasance or malfeasance." He said supporters are driven by being upset that the current Attorney General Bob Cooper has declined to join legal efforts to defeat President Barack Obama's health care law.

"Simply because one or several of us may disagree with a decision of the attorney general doesn't mean the system isn't working," he said. "It just means we disagree."

Fellow Republican Sen. Stacey Campfield of Knoxville, who voted in favor of Beavers' proposal, said he doesn't support putting the position in the hands of lawmakers.

"All the problems with democracy can be fixed with more democracy, not less," he said. "At some point we have to trust somebody.

"We can trust legislators, or we can trust the people," he said. "The more I see of government, the more I trust the people."

Voting against Beavers' proposal were nine Republicans, including Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, and five Democrats. Three Republicans and one Democrat abstained.

Voters this year will decide on a separate proposed constitutional amendment to keep the current system of retention elections, but also give state lawmakers the power to reject the governor's appointments. Legislative leaders say they don't know what would happen to the current system if voters reject the proposed amendment.

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