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Tennessee lawmakers advance efforts to amend attorney general selection process

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April 5, 2012

By Maresa Strano

Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tennessee:Pending approval by Tennessee's Senate Finance Committee, the majority of this session's General Assembly, and then two-thirds of the next consecutive General Assembly, a resolution to change the state's current qualifications and selection process for the state's top law enforcement officer is poised to reach voters via statewide referendum as early as November 2014.[1] Senate Joint Resolution 693, sponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mae Beavers (R), would amend the constitution to allow the governor to appoint the attorney general for a four-year term subject to legislative confirmation, and to reset the qualifications for holding the office. The law would change the eligibility requirements for an attorney general to 30 years old, a licensed attorney in Tennessee, a U.S. citizen and a resident of the state for at least seven years preceding the appointment.[2]

In place today is "Tennessee Plan," under which the attorney general is chosen by a State Supreme Court to serve for a term of eight years (Article VI, Section 5 of the state constitution), making it the only state in the nation to exclude voters from the selection process altogether. The legislation, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 4, is the product of a Tennessee lawmaker's rumination on the current system's failure to uphold the Constitution's original intentions for creating an office implicitly accountable to the people; prior to the adoption of the Tennessee Plan, the Supreme Court was a popularly elected body, thus the system provided--however indirectly--for voter involvement.

Beyond the fundamental accountability issue of neglecting voters in the selection process, Senator Beavers laments that under the Tennessee Plan, the office of attorney general is specifically vulnerable to perversion. The office is responsible for cases at the appellate court level, and there is an inevitable conflict of interest when that office's leader brings cases before the very body that appointed him/her to the position. He also points out that Tennessee is the only state to not select its attorney general by either popular election, or appointment by popularly elected officials, i.e. the governor or the state legislature. “The current system of selecting our state’s attorney general defies the checks and balances that are needed for our justice system,” said Senator Beavers.[1]

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