Depending on your level of journalistic adrenaline, state senate Republicans Thursday either "narrowly approved" (in polite public radio parlance) or "rammed...through" (in less genial Jeff Woods argot) a proposed constitutional amendment that would change the office of state attorney general to a popularly elected position.
A couple of Democrats voted for the bill. But the 19-14 vote was mainly an exercise in GOP frustration that current AG Bob Cooper (that leftist commie bastard) refuses to give legal cover to Republicans' constitutionally sophomoric efforts to derail national health care reform. And while it's not easy for me to type these words, senate Republicans are right to push this amendment. There, I said it. Naturally, though, they are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Senate sponsor Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) frames it as a way to make the AG more accountable. With the current scheme — AG named by Supreme Court justices, who are themselves first appointed by the governor — "the attorney general is twice removed from accountability with the taxpayers of this state." That holds water only under the assumption that "accountability" happens only by popular ballot, which is intellectually hollow and simplistic.
But in any event, there are two better reasons to elect the AG.
The first is an argument about the critical need for AG independence. This is perhaps a bigger concern in states that let governors appoint the AG, but even the method of Supreme Court appointment links the AG unnecessarily (if indirectly) to the executive branch. Watchdogging public corruption is a critical function that demands as much independence as possible, so a chief law enforcement officer ought to be as independent as possible from any other branches of government. Some argue (pretty convincingly) that the federal office of attorney general should be elected rather than a presidential appointment.
The second reason is a bench-strength argument: Tennessee simply needs more offices elected statewide. At a minimum, we should elect both a lieutenant governor and an attorney general. With only the governor and two U.S. senators elected by the entire state, we end up with a race for governor like the one now in process, which features unimpressive candidates unknown and untested in most of the state. A Haslam-McWherter general election ballot will feature two candidates vying for chief executive with no state-wide presence and no hands-on experience in state government.
Will an elected attorney general "politicize" the office? Will that make the office holder more subject to the whims of popular sentiment and the passing fads of citizen agitation? Yes, it probably will. But a little more AG pandering to the public mind would not be such a bad thing. It will compel the AG to be a more aggressive watchdog for consumer interests, and to justify to the electorate (when seeking re-election) how the state's chief law enforcement officer is serving the public interest. These are good things.