Tennessee’s last Republican AG was also its last popularly-elected AG

Tennessee’s last Republican attorney general was also the state’s last popularly-elected attorney general, reports Andy Sher in a story that includes a good bit of Tennessee history. An excerpt:

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.
Further from Andy Sher’s story

“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.
…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.”

Note: Bennett’s full article, a recommended read for Tennessee history buffs, is part of the Tennessee Bar Journal archives, available in pdf format HERE. (You have to scroll down a ways to get there.) Another tidbit: The Legislature once selected the attorney general – just as provided in a proposal approved by the state Senate last year that died in the House.

Conservative columnist praises Supremes for ‘nonpartisan’ AG selection

Excerpt from conservative columnist Greg Johnson’s latest opining in the News Sentinel:

Of course, Tennessee’s nearly extinct Democratic legislators lamented the ousting of Cooper.

“I am disappointed that our Supreme Court has capitulated to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and the very special-interest groups that tried to replace our justices just one short month ago,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. “(Cooper’s) service has been independent and above reproach, yet he was replaced because of his private political affiliation.”

This is a shock to Fitzhugh?

Fitzhugh’s Democratic brothers and sisters in Washington have not hesitated one bit in packing and stacking courts based on “private political affiliation.”

In fact, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed Senate rules to make it easier to confirm Democratic judges by effectively ending the filibuster for judicial nominees below the Supreme Court level.

Lee, Clark and Wade obviously do not share the partisan zeal of Fitzhugh.

More importantly, the three Democrat-appointed Tennessee justices kept their nonpartisan campaign promise in selecting the attorney general, proving themselves stateswomen and a statesman, preserving the integrity of the highest court in the state.

For this, the Democratic triumvirate rightly deserves praise, from the left, center and right.

Herron: Democrats put $300K into saving Supremes, now feel betrayed

State Democratic Chairman Roy Herron revealed Saturday that the party put $300,000 into helping three Democratic Supreme Court justices keep their seats and declared himself “hughely” disappointed that, once reelected, they rejected Democratic Attorney General Bob Cooper and replaced him with a Republican.

From Andy Sher’s report:

“We did a poll a week out and two of the three [justices] were behind and the third was in a dead-heat tie,” Herron told members of his party’s state executive committee. “There were large numbers of undecided voters. We thought they were on a path to defeat.”

Herron also told executive committee members he would not seek a second two-year term as their chairman in January.

On getting quietly involved at the last minute on the Supreme Court election, Herron said Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey “and the Koch brothers from out of state were spending huge amounts of money [to defeat the Democrats]. We stepped up and tried to balance it out.”

The party quickly raised and spent $200,000 on television and radio ads and another $100,000 already on hand for direct mail to help save Justices Sharon Lee, Connie Clark and Gary Wade, Herron said.

But after they won, an upset Herron said, “at least one of the Democratic justices” and two of the Republicans decided “to remove the most extraordinarily capable Attorney General Bob Cooper.”

“… It pains me what they have done,” Herron said. “I’m hoping, I’m praying they [justices] won’t disappoint us further. The only thing you could say against Bob Cooper was he was a Democrat.”

After saying he wouldn’t seek re-election as chairman, Herron urged divided Democrats to quit squabbling among themselves and unite against Republicans in the campaign, as well as behind whoever succeeds him as chairman.

Sunday column: Supremes showed sound political judgment in AG selection, but…

Our new Supreme Court’s first political judgment call seems a sound one, given the peculiar circumstances, but not without some rough edges that conceivably could come back to haunt two of the five justices fairly soon and perhaps even the institution they all represent.

The political judgment call was selection of Herbert Slatery — Gov. Bill Haslam’s legal counsel, distant cousin and boyhood buddy — as Tennessee’s attorney general for the next eight years. Well, OK, some suspect he’ll serve only four years, leaving when Haslam runs out his likely new gubernatorial term.

In today’s Tennessee politics, that was a very wise move toward Supreme self-preservation. In tomorrow’s Tennessee politics, maybe not so much.

Tennessee’s constitution grants the legislative branch of government rather broad oversight of the judicial branch. As interpreted by the Supreme Court, the state constitution also gives the executive branch the right to decide who sits on the Supreme Court — though that proposition is disputed and, to clarify that it is correct, voters are being asked in November to approve an amendment to the state constitution saying so. It’s called Amendment 2.
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Al Jazeera sues Al Gore

NEW YORK (AP) – Al Jazeera America is suing former Vice President Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, the former owners of the TV network that became Al Jazeera America.

The parties are fighting over money that is being held in escrow. The former vice president and Hyatt, the founder of Hyatt Legal Services, sued the network last month saying that it was improperly withholding tens of millions of dollars placed in escrow when Al Jazeera bought Current TV for $500 million.

Al Jazeera America says it is entitled to the money because Gore and Hyatt agreed to indemnify the network for claims made against Current TV, but didn’t live up to their promise. It accuses the pair of “misrepresentations” and says they received hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale.

Gore and Hyatt filed a lawsuit against the network in the Delaware Court of Chancery. The two men each owned 20 percent of Current TV.

The Qatar-owned news channel took over Current TV’s signal last August and hired U.S. TV news veterans including Soledad O’Brien and John Seigenthaler. It is available in almost 60 million U.S. homes.

Roy Herron won’t seek second term as TN Democratic Chairman

News release from Tennessee Democratic Party:
NASHVILLE, Tenn.- Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron announced today at a meeting of the Tennessee Democratic Party State Executive Committee that he would not be seeking a second term as party chairman.

“I have been blessed to serve as chairman these past two years, and I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all of the executive committee members, party officials, staff members, and friends with whom I have worked to help elect Democrats,” Herron said. “Electing Democrats in Tennessee in order to move our state forward will continue to be my focus and my passion.”

Herron’s term as state party chair has been marked by a number of major accomplishments, including cutting recurring state party expenses almost 50%, hosting two record-setting Jackson Day fundraisers, and a major effort by the state party to help retain three Supreme Court justices targeted by Republican Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and outside interest groups.

On Haslam dodging a ‘rape kits’ question in Memphis (he doesn’t have much authority, you know)

Interesting perspectives from Memphis TV reporting on Gov. Bill Haslam responding to a question on the backlog in processing “rape kits.”


Governor Bill Haslam doesn’t have a lot of power in state government. The lieutenant governor and the speaker of the house have more clout when it comes to things. Still, he is the governor. Who knows when to get involved. Or when it comes to the untested rape kit issue, knows when to stay out of it.

“Obviously, primarily those are local issues. But we’re looking. Senator Norris is taking the lead. We’re looking to see what role the state can play in all of that,” Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said.

So we follow the passed buck over to state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville. He has been working on the rape kit issue and continues to do so.

“Just last week I met with the director of the TBI. I met with the commissioner of finance. We got our inventories back in from all jurisdictions that have these forensic evidence kits,” Norris said.

Money is a huge problem. In Memphis alone, it will cost more than three and a half million dollars to do complete tests on the remaining ten thousand kits. Other Tennessee cities and counties have a problem too, by the way.

“We’ve got to be very methodical and strategic about how we move forward but its very encouraging that the federal government will make resources available as well,” Norris said.

And, from WMC-TV:

Memphis Police Department discovered more untested kits in a storage facility Sept. 16; it’s now a total of 12,360 backlogged rape kits dating back to 1976. More than 5,000 of the kits have now been processed.

“Are there different procedures? The state can say this is the way it should happen everywhere … That we might look at a piece of legislation,” Haslam said.

…Norris revealed how long it would take to end the backlog.

“If Governor Haslam could write a check for the full amount today, we estimate it would still take as much as three years to complete the testing,” he said.

Some citizens stepped in to donate their own money to the cause. Real estate developer Nick Brown presented the city with a $10,000 check to help with the problem.

Ramsey: Pre-K is ‘a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working’

While Gov. Bill Haslam is keeping the door open to an expansion of the public prekindergarten program in Tennessee, any such move would remain a tough sell among some fellow Republicans in the Legislature, observes the Chattanooga TFP.

Haslam stressed that a federal notice that Tennessee intends to apply for a share of federal money available for pre-K expansion doesn’t mean the state will necessarily follow through. The governor said this week he still is awaiting the results of a multiyear Vanderbilt study on the effectiveness of the program before making up his mind.

…Should Haslam ultimately decide to pursue more money for pre-K, he will have to persuade Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, a long-time critic of the program for 4-year-olds. Ramsey called it “a liberal, feel-good program that’s not working.”
Ramsey acknowledged that the federal program would not involve state money, but questioned any expansion beyond children from low-income households.

“Any dime that we spend on that is a dime that comes away from K-12,” he said.

Tennessee spends about $86.5 million per year on the program, funding 935 pre-K classrooms around the state with an enrollment of more than 18,000 children.

Early results from the Vanderbilt study tracking pre-K students’ performance over time found greater academic gains than their peers who didn’t attend…. (T)he next set of the Vanderbilt results from the study won’t be ready for a year from now. So it’s unclear how the study began in 2009 could influence a final decision on applying for the federal money by the Oct. 14 deadline.

The pre-K program was begun in 1998 as a $10 million pilot project for about 150 classrooms under then-Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican. Under his Democratic successor, Phil Bredesen, the program was expanded by nearly 800 classrooms.

Bredesen had called for making pre-K available to any family that chooses to enroll their child, but those plans were put on hold because of the Great Recession, and Haslam hasn’t made significant changes in his first term despite its widespread popularity.

Haslam needled in Memphis; ‘hopefully’ will submit Medicaid expansion plan to legislature next year

Excerpt from a Commercial Appeal article:
Gov. Bill Haslam stumped for the judicial selection amendment on the November ballot in a Friday visit to Memphis, responded to a group of protesters who aren’t happy with his budgeting priorities, and took a needle — a real one, not a political barb — in his left arm.

The latter came at an event at the Shelby County Health Department promoting flu shots. Haslam, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and state Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner removed their jackets, rolled up their sleeves and took the vaccination.

Haslam smiled throughout the shot and joked when it was over. “I was kind of hoping for a Snoopy Band-Aid, though,” he said.

Outside, however, a dozen or so protesters weren’t joking. Calling themselves “Put the People First,” a group lobbied for “living wage jobs, democratic rights, public schools,” their sign said.

…Haslam didn’t cross paths with the protesters. But when asked about their issues, he said, “We do put people first.”

…(On Medicaid expansion) Haslam said the state is in discussions with federal officials and is “in the middle of trying to come up with a plan that we can present to Washington. Hopefully we’ll be able to do that this fall and then bring something back to the legislature for them to decide.”

Judge told DCS doing better in caring for foster children

The experts who watch over Tennessee’s foster care system told a judge Friday that the state is doing better at keeping foster children safe and supporting the families who take them in, according to The Tennessean.

The Department of Children’s Services will remain under strict court orders to make additional reforms, but the agency got credit for improving on 14 measurements related to child well-being.

DCS has now met 82 of 136 goals outlined in an agreement that a federal court created in 2000 in response to a lawsuit against Tennessee by New York-based watchdog group Children’s Rights alleging widespread mistreatment of vulnerable kids. Continued progress could end federal oversight sometime in 2016, officials said.

A year ago, DCS went to court to report more problems than progress. And in June, U.S. District Court Judge Todd J. Campbell chastised top officials for a lack of urgency in fixing the DCS computer system that keeps track of children.

He was more optimistic this time.

“So you’re no longer going in reverse?” Campbell asked.

“We’re very much going in the positive direction,” said Ira Lustbader, attorney for Children’s Rights. “To be sure, challenges remain.”