Tennessee Senate Majority Leader said to be vetted for possible federal judgeship

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris speaks about the conclusion of the legislative session at a news conference at the state Capitol in Nashville on April 23, 2015.

NASHVILLE - Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a likely 2018 GOP candidate for governor, is being vetted as a possible Trump administration pick for one of two vacant U.S. District Court judgeships in West Tennessee, state Capitol Hill sources say.

The veteran Republican lawmaker, who occupies the second most powerful post in the GOP-run chamber, did not respond to telephone calls about the matter Friday or Sunday.

Two Republican sources said FBI agents had asked them about Norris as part of the customary background check for federal judicial nominations.

And a former state legislator said two local law enforcement chiefs in his former West Tennessee district told him they had been contacted about Norris as well.

It's unclear whether any other attorneys are undergoing background checks for the two vacant federal judgeships in the Western District.

In January, the Memphis Flyer listed Norris among five attorneys who were being discussed in political circles in connection with the two vacancies - one created in 2015 when U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays took senior status and another earlier this year when U.S. District Judge Daniel Breen did the same.

For months, Norris, 61, has shown strong interest in running in what's shaping up as a crowded GOP primary in 2018 to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam, also a Republican.

Late last month, the Senate majority leader, the only serious would-be Republican gubernatorial contender from West Tennessee, told The Associated Press his decision on the governor's race was imminent.

But if Republican President Donald Trump were to nominate Norris for a judgeship, that could entice the Collierville attorney to alter his political plans and change the expected GOP primary landscape yet again.

During the spring, state Sen. Mark Green, R-Ashland City, an announced candidate for governor, suspended his campaign after Trump nominated him for U.S. Army secretary.

But Green faced national criticism over his past remarks about Islam and LGBT issues, and withdrew his name from consideration even as he condemned the attacks as gross mischaracterizations. Earlier this month, Green announced he would not restart his gubernatorial effort and is now weighing his other political options.

A partner at the Adams and Reese law firm in Memphis, Norris was first elected to the state Senate in 2000 and represents part of Shelby and all of Tipton counties.

There has been speculation in legal circles that Norris' age - he's 61 - could weigh against him, given that presidents often like to appoint younger attorneys.

But several Republicans noted younger attorneys don't always stay put, pointing to former U.S. District Judge Kevin Sharp, 54, an Obama appointee in the Middle District of Tennessee.

Sharp stepped down in April after only six years on the bench. A number of Nashville-area Democratic attorneys remain upset about his decision, which left the Middle District with two vacant federal judgeships.

Already-announced candidates in the GOP gubernatorial primary are state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet; Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, a former state economic development commissioner, and Franklin businessman Bill Lee.

Also weighing bids are U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., and Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville.


Speaking of Black and Harwell, the congresswoman from Gallatin, who is a former state senator, was in Legislative Plaza on Friday and met privately with Harwell in the speaker's office.

When a reporter approached the pair as they emerged from Harwell's office, the speaker laughed and said "What are you doing here? Are you sniffing us out?"

Black said they are "just old friends."

Asked if they were discussing the governor's race, Harwell said, "If we were doing that, we would have you in the office."

Pressed on her time line for a decision on the governor's race, Black, chairman of the U.S. House Budget Committee, said, "I'm doing my budget, is what I'm doing. That's where I need to be. I promised them I would do it."

She said she came to the Capitol complex to see Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, to discuss how Trump's proposed budget cuts will affect federal installations at Oak Ridge.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.