NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The state Senate is taking another run at changing the way Tennessee’s attorney general gains office.
Under a proposed constitutional amendment advanced to a full Senate vote Tuesday, the attorney general would stand for popular election rather than being appointed by the state Supreme Court.
Sen. Mark Green, R-Clarksville, questioned why the panel was taking up the resolution when the full chamber voted 22-9 last year in favor of his proposal to have the attorney general appointed by a joint convention of the General Assembly.
“This body voted last year to do it completely differently,” he said. “That makes little to no sense.”
The panel voted 6-2 to advance the measure sponsored by Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, to a full Senate vote.
The rival measures are still at the earliest steps of a lengthy process for constitutional amendments. In order to be placed on the ballot in 2018, they must pass both chambers during the General Assembly that ends this year, and again by a two-thirds vote during the next two-year session.
Green and fellow Republican Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville cast the only votes against the measure. They argued that making the attorney general an elected position would require them to seek heavy campaign contributions and threaten the nonpartisan and independent nature of the office.
“Those serving in the attorney general’s office (in Tennessee) do so because they want to be attorney general,” Overbey said. “In many other states where you have elected attorneys general, it is a stepping stone to their office.”
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, said he supports the latest measure.
“People should be able to decide,” he said. “To say there’s corruption because they’re in an election, we all ran in elections, too.”
Campfield raised questioned about whether Attorney General Bob Cooper should be considered the Legislature’s attorney when he has been at odds with Republican lawmakers over issues like joining a federal lawsuit seeking to halt President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
“He refused,” Campfield said. “He said, ‘no, I don’t care what the Legislature says.’”
The current system has been in place since the adoption of the state’s 1870 constitution. But critics argue that the 1994 Tennessee Plan for appointing and retaining Supreme Court justices removed a layer of accountability from both the members of the high court and the attorney general.
While justices previously had to stand for popular elections, they now stand for yes-no retention votes that only one sitting justice has ever lost.
The current system has withstood legal challenges, but opponents argue it conflicts with language in the state constitution that says justices “shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state.”
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.