The following is a legislative update from State Senator Mae Beavers
The State Senate has approved a resolution sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers calling for an elected State Attorney General (AG). The resolution, Senate Joint Resolution 698, was approved by a vote of 19-14 this week on the Senate floor.
“If the role of the Attorney General in the state of Tennessee is to provide the best legal service possible to the state and its citizens, then it doesn’t make much sense to me that he or she is currently twice removed from the citizens of Tennessee,” said Beavers. “Currently, the people of Tennessee have to elect a governor, who appoints the Supreme Court, who then appoints the Attorney General and Reporter. This process eliminates any possible practical or substantial check of the attorney general by Tennesseans – who are supposed to be his or her most important clients.”
Forty-three states elect their attorneys general via a popular election, and in six other states, the Attorney General is selected by either the popularly elected Governor or the popularly elected state legislature. Beavers said for most of Tennessee’s history, when the Constitution called for an appointed Attorney General by the Supreme Court Justices, the court was popularly elected.
“The Supreme Court Rules talk about promoting public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary,” said Beavers. “How does a system where an Attorney General appointed by the same body he might one day argue a case before promote public confidence and impartiality?”
The resolution offered by Beavers would amend the state’s Constitution to allow a popular election every four years. The amendment process would require approval by both the 106th and 107th General Assemblies. If approved, the question would then go to voters in a statewide referendum in the year 2014.
Issues In Brief
DUI / Interlock devices – The full Senate has approved legislation that would increase the use of ignition interlock devices to curb the number of alcohol-related car crashes in Tennessee. Senate Bill 2965, sponsored by Senator Beavers, requires the use of the devices for extreme drunk drivers, such as those who have a blood or breath alcohol concentration of .15 percent or higher or who drive intoxicated with a child in the vehicle. It also provides that those convicted of drunk driving under .15 with the option to install an interlock device instead of being geographically restricted by the court. Interlock devices are small pieces of equipment attached to the steering wheel of a car with a tube that the driver must breathe into in order to allow the ignition to start. Studies show the devices have been very successful in curbing drunk driving.
Abortion / federal healthcare law – The State Senate has passed and sent to the governor legislation to prohibit taxpayer-funded coverage for abortion services in Tennessee associated with the federal healthcare law passed by Congress. The bill, Senate Bill 2686, prohibits any health care plan established pursuant to federal health care reform legislation enacted by the 111th United States Congress from offering coverage for abortion services.
Veterans / fundraising – A resolution seeking to amend Tennessee’s Constitution to allow tax exempt veterans groups to raise funds in the same manner as 501 (c)(3) charitable organizations was sent to a Summer Study Committee for further review and to refine the language of the proposal. Veterans groups were left out of the Constitutional Amendment approved by voters in 2002, due to the way their organizations are generally structured as 501 (c) (19) or 501 (c) (4) organizations under the Internal Revenue Code. The Committee will look at making the language in the resolution, SJR 982, as precise as possible to allow charitable fundraisers by veterans, without unintentionally opening a door to any unscrupulous gaming activities.
Highways / federal funds – Legislation that calls for Tennessee to keep its own road money rather than participate in the Federal-Aid Highway Program was approved by the Senate Finance Committee. The bill, Senate Bill 3678, provides for Tennessee to opt out of the federal program subject to enabling action by Congress. The state could then elect to retain the state’s contributions to the federal Highway Trust Fund for transportation purposes. Tennessee is a donor state as far as the Federal-Aid Highway Program is concerned. In the 2008-2009, Tennessee remitted $740.6 million in taxes collected from fuel, batteries and diesel to the federal highway trust fun and received $673.4 million in allocations. Under the proposal, taxes retained by the state would be directed to the State Highway Fund instead.
Foreign defamation / Libel Tourism -- State Senators voted this week to approve Senate Bill 3589 that would help in the fight against a tactic known as “Libel Tourism.” The practice is used in defamation lawsuits filed against authors critical of individuals with known ties to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda and Hamas. The legislation ensures that Tennessee Courts have the ability not to recognize a foreign judgment, if that country’s laws protecting free speech and the free press are not as protective as freedoms provided in the constitutions of Tennessee and United States. The measure relates to grounds for non-recognition of foreign defamation judgments, closely resembling similar laws passed by the New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California, Utah and Florida Legislatures on the matter.
Domestic Violence – The Senate Judiciary Committee continued to make progress in attacking crime in the state with passage of several bills this week, including two measures to address domestic violence. One proposal, Senate Bill 2708, prohibits a respondent of an order of protection from telephoning, contacting, or otherwise communicating directly or indirectly with the petitioner. The bill makes it clear that the person to whom the order is directed cannot contact the victim “for any purpose.” The action would prevent excuses from being used in violation of the order.
The second domestic violence proposal, Senate Bill 2709, allows the court to order domestic abuse perpetrators to attend counseling programs. The bill prescribes a list of counseling programs the judges can order from if they choose, including, intervention programs that are certified by Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council. The bill increases the maximum penalty for those convicted of the crime from $200 to $225, with the proceeds going to grants for domestic violence shelter programs.