Justices pick Republican Herbert Slatery as Tennessee attorney general

photo Herbert Slatery speaks about his appointment as attorney general in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber in Nashville on Monday. Slatery previously served as Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's chief legal counsel.

CLOSER LOOK AT HERBERT SLATERY III• Age: 57• Current job: Legal counsel to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam• Family: Married to Carey Slatery. The couple have two children• Education: University of Virginia, bacceloreate (1974); University of Tennessee Law School (1980)

NASHVILLE - Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey may have lost at the ballot box in his efforts to defeat three Democratic Supreme Court justices, but he wound up Monday with a history-shattering consolation prize.

The five-member Supreme Court named Herbert Slatery III, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legal counsel, as Tennessee's first GOP attorney general since the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction in the state.

In doing so, the three Democratic and two Republican justices cast aside sitting Attorney General Bob Cooper, who had reapplied for another eight-year appointment, and chose Slatery, one of five Republicans who were finalists.

"As the first Republican attorney general in Tennessee history, Herbert Slatery will be a strong advocate for the people of Tennessee and a vigilant defender of Tennessee's conservative reforms," a jubilant Ramsey said in a statement.

Tennessee is the only state in the country where the state's highest court selects the state's top lawyer. Georgia, Alabama and most states allow voters to make the choice.

Monday's announcement came following Ramsey and fellow GOP hardliners' failed effort to oust Democratic Justices Sharon Lee, Gary Wade and Connie Clark in the Aug. 7 retention election.

Much of their campaign centered on attacking Cooper, a Chattanooga native and one-time legal counsel to Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was named attorney general in 2006.

Ramsey and national groups launched a television ad and direct-mail campaign taking the court to task over Cooper's refusal to join mostly Republican state attorneys general in other states in a legal challenge against President Barack Obama's Affordable Act.

Haslam refused to take part in the ouster effort.

In announcing the 62-year-old Slatery as their pick, Chief Justice Lee said at a news conference that the court considered his "proven leadership ability and sound judgment" in their decision, which she called unanimous.

Slatery, Lee said, "has played an important role in drafting major legislation during the current term and has worked closely with all branches of government."

Lee, who was previously scheduled to be sworn in as chief justice by Haslam on Wednesday, has previously cited a court "commitment [for] a transparent" application process. The court held an initial public hearing a week ago as courts have done since at least the 1990s.

They then retreated behind closed doors, as other courts have always done, where they cut two of the eight original applicants, conducted another round of private interviews and made their decision. After Monday's news conference the justices quickly marched into their private chambers, ignoring reporters' efforts to ask questions.

Slatery, a University of Tennessee Law School graduate, did stick around.

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"I'm just really thankful for the opportunity," Slatery said. "It's a big job, but I look forward to it. I think there are some things I can contribute. I think the experience in the governor's office has helped."

During his tenure, Cooper had been active in areas involving consumer protections, including helping negotiate a national settlement on mortgage relief that brought in $200 million.

Slatery called it a "very good function" of the office he's interesting in maintaining.

He declined to get drawn into questions about whether he would have joined the Obamacare legal challenge, saying, "you need to look at cost, you need to look at the issue, you need to communicate well with the leaders of the state to see what their positions are. I'm not in a position where I can answer as to whether I would joint the Obamacare lawsuit."

He also was unsure just when he'll take up his new job, saying he wants to do so quickly but has some loose ends he'd like to tie up.

The court's decision to deny Cooper a second term drew fire from state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley.

While congratulating Slatery and wishing him success, he charged "our Supreme Court has capitulated to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and validated what he was trying to do."

He said while Slatery "will do a good job," he noted some may question Slatery's close ties to Haslam. The two are distantly related and are lifelong friends. Fitzhugh, who has long opposed having a popularly elected attorney general, said it's time to explore that.

Former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a Republican who also once served in the state Senate, called it "unfortunate" the court "did not adhere to a fully open process in choosing the attorney general."

"It would have been good for whoever is the ultimate winner," said Ashe, who believes Tennesseans should be the ones electing the attorney general as voters do in most states. "The process was 80 percent closed.

For Ramsey, the selection of any Republican over Cooper was a political godsend to what had been a major defeat. In Ramsey's view, Lee, Wade and Clark campaigned as "conservatives" and Tennessee now has a Republican attorney general.

Ramsey has close ties to Bill Young, another applicant and Republican. Young has long made political contributions to state GOP causes. The Supreme Court last year made Young the head of the Administrative Office of the Court.

Other finalists were private attorneys Gino Bulso of Nashville, who has extensive trial and appellate court experience, and Mark Fults, a former assistant state attorney general, of Johnson City.

In a statement, Cooper, 57, called it an "honor to serve the people of Tennessee as Attorney General." He thanked his lawyers and staff "whose excellent legal work and commitment to professional duty make this office the best in the nation."

"Because of their hard work and separation of professional duty from personal opinion, the office maintained its tradition of independence from partisan politics. I extend my congratulations to my successor. I wish [Slatery] the best of luck and am confident the office will continue in this tradition."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.