By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — With Friday’s application deadline looming, the field of candidates to become Tennessee’s next attorney general includes the incumbent, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s top legal adviser, a state senator and the administrative director of state courts.
Attorney General Bob Cooper’s term expires at the end of the month, and the high court will decide whether to keep him or select another applicant to serve the next eight-year term.
The applications follow a contentious — but ultimately unsuccessful — campaign spearheaded by Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey to defeat sitting Democratic justices to give Republicans control of the state’s highest court.
That campaign heavily focused on the role of Cooper’s role as attorney general, including his refusal to join a multistate legal challenge to President Barack Obama’s health care law.
Tennessee is the only state in the country where justices appoint the attorney general.
Herbert Slatery, who has served as Haslam’s legal counsel for the duration of the governor’s first term, said Thursday that he chose to apply because “that sort of opportunity only comes around every eight years.”
“I think I’m an alternative to some others that brings a totally different piece to the table, and it’s important for the judges to have a broad selection of folks for this important decision,” he said.
Cooper served as former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s legal counsel before he was selected from among 14 applicants for attorney general in 2006.
Slatery’s decision to apply likely means that state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, won’t follow suit.
“It’s hard to see how anyone would mistake that for anything other than Gov. Haslam’s preference,” Norris said earlier Thursday.
Haslam, who named the two Republican justices on the five-member court, said he was torn about Slatery’s decision.
“I think he’d be a great attorney general, but quite frankly I would miss him a lot on our staff,” Haslam said. The governor added that he’s told Slatery he would “stay out of the politics” of the selection process.
The other candidates who have confirmed that they have submitted their applications are state Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, and Bill Young, the administrative director of the courts.
Overbey has been often broken with fellow Republicans in the Legislature in his defense of the Tennessee judiciary and the selection — rather than popular election — of both appeals judges and the attorney general.
“I think we have it right to do it our way, the Tennessee way, because we’ve been well served by attorney generals, and it’s been folks who are schooled in the law and who have not used it as a stepping stone for further office,” he said.
Bill Young, who heads the Administrative Office of the Courts, previously served as solicitor general under Cooper.
“The people of this state are well served by the highly qualified candidates who are applying,” he said. “It makes it tough on the Supreme Court.”
Young said he does not expect his past contributions to Republican candidates and causes to hurt his application — including the $500 he gave to Ramsey’s political action committee, Raampac, in July. Ramsey’s PAC ultimately spent more than $425,000 on the campaign to oust the Democratic justices.
“I was pretty much told that Raampac wasn’t going to be used to do that,” he said. “If I had known that, I probably would have had second thoughts. And I think the speaker knows that.”