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Herbert Slatery speaks about his appointment as attorney general in the Tennessee Supreme Court chamber in Nashville on Sept. 15.

NASHVILLE - Newly appointed state Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who last week became only the second Republican in Tennessee history to hold the post, fully embraces the unusual process in which the state Supreme Court names the state's top lawyer.

But what Slatery, and most other people, may not know is that Tennessee's one and only previous Republican attorney general, Thomas M. Coldwell, who served from 1865 to 1870, also happened to be the last one popularly elected to the job.

"It's an interesting story," said former Tennessee Attorney General W.J. Michael Cody, who said he researched the history of Tennessee's unique approach with former Deputy Attorney General Andy Bennett, now a Court of Appeals judge. Most other states, including Georgia and Alabama, elect their attorneys general.

Indeed it is an interesting story, of suspected intrigues in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. It ranks with the tale of Republican Slatery's own appointment over sitting Democratic Attorney General Bob Cooper by a Supreme Court dominated by Democrats.

In the present day the court's three Democrats -- Justices Sharon Lee, Connie Clark and Gary Wade -- survived efforts by Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and national conservatives to unseat them in August elections.

Then the Democratic justices and their two Republican colleagues declined to reappoint Cooper and named Slatery, who was Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's legal counsel, instead.

The 19th-century story involves a former U.S. senator-turned Confederate from Tennessee, A.O.P. Nicholson, and his fellow Tennessean and Confederate Congress member Joseph Heiskell.

Both attorneys, the pair evidently became fast friends during the Civil War while cooling their heels in a Yankee prison.

With apparently a lot of time to daydream, Cody said, Heiskell decided he'd like to be attorney general. Well, Nicholson came back, he'd like to be a Supreme Court judge.

In a 2000 article in the Tennessee Bar Journal, Bennett outlined two "theories" on what happened a few years after Nicholson, a Democrat, and Heiskell, a Whig Party member who sided with Democrats, got out of jail.

"According to the first theory, the method was a way to get Joseph Heiskell chosen for the job." Heiskell and Nicholson got themselves elected delegates to the state's 1870 Constitutional Convention and became leading members of the body.

The convention rewrote the attorney general section. After it was approved by voters and went into effect, Nicholson was elected to the Supreme Court and became chief justice. And the court then appointed Heiskell attorney general.

The second theory holds the reason was that some convention members wanted an appointed attorney general with good reason, because the position also includes that of "reporter." It requires the meticulous keeping of reports on court cases and decisions. The public couldn't be trusted to know who would be good at it, the theory goes.

Some convention delegates fought to keep a popularly elected attorney general. They lost.

"Interestingly enough," Bennett dryly observed in the article, "Joseph Heiskell successfully moved that the proposal for popular election be tabled."

Cody said regardless of how the process started, Tennessee attorneys general most often serve governors, legislatures, agencies and their sometimes-conflicting interests well.

But not without controversy. In 1979, for example, Democratic Attorney General William Leech helped engineer a coup that ousted then-Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton and got Republican Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander sworn into office days earlier than custom decreed.

At the time, Blanton was embroiled in a cash-for-pardons controversy and officials feared he might issue more pardons on his way out of office.

Cody drew the wrath of some leaders in what was then a Democrat-controlled Legislature when he began going after the charitable bingo industry, where most of the money went into the pockets of professional gamblers.

After Cody left office, federal indictments showered down on the industry and the Legislature. The outcome include the conviction of one lawmaker, Rep. Tommy Burnett, D-Monterey; the suicides of then-Secretary of State Gentry Crowell and Rep. Ted Ray Miller, D-Knoxville; and convictions of several lobbyists for bribery.

"The main thing [for an attorney general] is having someone who has a tough enough skin to be able to tell the various constituencies ... no in as polite and nice a way as you possibly can," Cody said. "And then, maybe, next time they ask you a question it will come down the way they want it to."

Anytime a situation gets to "where there's a difference in the way the attorney general thinks it is and the way a legislator or the governor want it to be, you have to tell them ... we represent the people and we have have to call this on the basis of the people of the state of Tennessee."

Slatery, who has yet to be sworn in, was a lifelong friend of Haslam. Cooper was Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen's legal counsel before he was appointed.

Following his appointment last week, Slatery, 62, said he was honored. He called the post a "big job," but said he's looking forward to the challenge.

"I think there are some things I can contribute. I think the experience in the governor's office has helped."

A 1980 graduate of the University of Tennessee Law School, Slatery said he realizes there are questions about his closeness to Haslam.

"Yes, I realize that's a question, I'm close to the governor and everybody knows that," Slatery said. "That's not going to change. I think I'll still have conversations with him. I see that as an asset."

But he said he knows "there'll be times when the attorney general has to take positions on opinions and things like that. And like I said during my testimony [during justices' public interview of AG applicants], his expectation would be for me to do the right thing. If I don't do the right thing he'll be disappointed."

Claude Ramsey, a former Hamilton County mayor who served as Haslam's top deputy, said he got to know Slatery pretty well over several years in Nashville.

"He's just a solid human being," Ramsey said. "He's a people person. Thinks through things, a good thinker. Doesn't react off the cuff much. He likes to know what he's talking about before he makes a move. He's steady, and I think would make a good AG."

Mark Cate, Haslam's chief of staff, said he first met Slatery during the 2010 campaign. A methodical man, he said.

"To me probably one of his greatest strengths as it relates to this job he has unquestioned integrity," Cate said. "I've never heard anybody ever question, no matter who they are or what their feelings are about Herbert, his integrity."

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

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