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.

In today’s Tennessee politics, Republicans absolutely and totally rule the roost of the executive and legislative branches, and the Supreme Court, sitting atop the judicial branch, must deal with that situation even though identifiable Democrats still have a 3-2 majority.

The three Democrats — Sharon Lee, Connie Clark and Gary Wade — just survived an ouster attempt led by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who joined other conservative Republican critics in making “liberal Democrat” Bob Cooper’s service as attorney general an issue. There’s also a bubbling movement within Republican legislator ranks to make revisions on various judicial oversight laws in ways the Supremes don’t like — putting more non-attorneys on the board that handles judicial discipline, for example.

The Supreme Court’s two Republicans, meanwhile, owe their appointments to Gov. Bill Haslam. They will face a retention election in two years.

Ergo, it makes good political sense to jettison Cooper and replace him with a Republican. Keeping Cooper would have been seen as an act of defiance by some GOP activists.

Having accepted that a bow to the GOP powers that be was in order, the Supreme question then became, “Which Republican?” Given their options, the choice was obvious: Go with the governor’s guy.

Haslam, after all, appointed two Supremes, so they owe him. He steered clear of attacking the other three during the retention campaign, leaving many with the impression he actually favored keeping the Democrats in place. So they owe him, too.

And no one can reasonably question that Slatery is qualified to hold the position, though whether more or less so than the other Republican applicants could be debated.

Further, by declaring Supreme allegiance to Haslam, the justices have tacitly taken sides in the ongoing Republican war between moderate and conservative factions. Yet they still left Ramsey with an opportunity to brag that his attacks on the Democrats were ultimately successful, achieving the goal of a Republican attorney general.

At this particular moment, then, it was a very logical move. But there is potential political blowback in the months and years ahead on several fronts too numerous to list here.

Consider, for example, that Democrats felt betrayed. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, declaring that the Supremes had “capitulated” to Ramsey, indicates that Democrats will reconsider their past united opposition to stripping the Supremes of their authority to appoint the AG, potentially creating one of those odd alliances between Democrats and a faction of the splintered supermajority.

Or that the secretive nature of the Supreme selection process — not to mention Ramsey having separate private breakfast meetings with Lee and Wade — has led to all sorts of deal-cutting conspiracy theories on the rumor circuit, not exactly fostering confidence in judicial independence or impartiality.

Or that Bivins and Kirby face their own retention election in 2016, likely with a whole new set of developing dynamics.

Will folks believe them then when they declare support, as three judges did this year, for a non-politial, independent Supreme Court devoted to an “open and transpartent” AG selection process?

Note: This is a slightly expanded version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel, which is HERE.