Group calls for new way to pick attorney general

Group calls for new way to pick attorney general

February 14th, 2011 by Todd South in News

A law study group has released a report calling for a change to Tennessee's process for selecting the state's attorney general.

The study notes that the last eight attorneys general had Democratic Party affiliations and that Tennessee is one of only seven states that appoints rather than elects its attorney general.

J. Ammon Smartt and Keith W. Randall conducted the study for the Federalist Society, a conservative-leaning law and public policy study group, and released their findings last week.

"Not only is the current system political, it's dominated by a single party," Smartt said in a phone interview.

In Tennessee the attorney general is appointed by the state Supreme Court for eight-year terms. As the state's chief legal officer, the attorney defends the state's actions and positions, advises on election officers' duties and provides legal opinions to district attorneys general, election commissions and the General Assembly.

Smartt and Randall say allowing voters to elect the attorney general or giving appointment authority to the governor and legislature would allow for more public accountability.

But a local retired Tennessee Supreme Court chief justice and Allan Ramsaur, head of the state bar association, both said the current process keeps politics out of the office.

"It's not like the attorney general is just another policymaker; they are guided by the law and legal precedence," said Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association.

In the 12-page study, which also looks at other states' methods of selecting an attorney general, Smartt and Randall argue that Tennessee's method offers little accountability for the attorney general and that the person appointed does not reflect the will of the people.

"I think that if something is not done with the current system, it's simply a matter of time before we have some serious separation-of-powers issues," Smartt said.

He did not offer any specific examples of partisan preference by attorneys general but said the mere appearance of party loyalty can affect public perception of the office.

Ramsaur disagreed fundamentally with the authors.

"This is an office that should not be reflective of the political will of the people. They should not be in the business of making legal policy for the state and arriving at decisions for the state based on what party the person's affiliation comes from, what partisan interests might be advanced," Ramsaur said.

Retired Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice William M. "Mickey" Barker served on the state Supreme Court from 1998 until 2008 and participated in two attorney general selections.

Barker, who now practices law in Chattanooga, said the system in place insulates the attorney general from partisan politics.

Changing the selection process, which has been in place nearly all of the state's history, would require changing the state constitution - a lengthy process requiring majority legislature approval and a statewide public vote.

"The public might elect a great attorney general," Barker said. "My worry really, though, is whether or not someone might use that job for political gain."

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