- Associated Press - Thursday, September 18, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - First, the state Supreme Court hired Gov. Bill Haslam’s top legal adviser as Tennessee’s next attorney general. Now the high court’s new chief justice is also adopting the Republican governor’s rhetoric.

Haslam, who has made a “top to bottom review” of state government a catchphrase of his first term in office, on Wednesday presided over Sharon Lee’s investiture as chief justice of the state’s highest court.

Lee, who spearheaded the attorney general interview process that led to the selection Monday of longtime Haslam friend and adviser Herbert Slatery, announced that she would also seek a “top to bottom review” of the judiciary to save taxpayer money and be more efficiently.

She also wants to consider establishing special business courts to “provide a good forum for businesses … to resolve their disputes.”

Lee and two other Democratic justices were retained for another eight-year term on the Supreme Court last month in the most expensive judicial election in state history. A conservative campaign led by Republican state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey sought to oust the justices appointed by then Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, as a way to give Republicans control of the court.

Tennessee is the only state in the country where the Supreme Court selects the attorney general.

The three justices prevailed over the ouster effort, in which Attorney General Bob Cooper was heavily criticized for refusing to join a multi-state lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s health care law. But one month later they dismayed some fellow Democrats by replacing Cooper with a Republican.

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, declared the justices had “capitulated” to Republican pressure.

Fitzhugh suggested that Democrats who feel burned after supporting the justices in the yes-no retention vote may swing their support behind perennial legislative efforts by some Republicans to call for the popular election of the state’s attorney general.

The turmoil comes as Haslam tries to rally support for a November vote on a proposed constitutional amendment to keep the current system of having the governor appoint Tennessee’s top judges. Opponents hope for a return to contested popular elections of the state’s top judges.

Haslam, who had remained neutral during the justices’ retention campaign, said he has known Justice Gary Wade for 30 years and that he first met Lee in high school. The governor said earlier this week that he welcomed the choice of Slatery as attorney general, and doesn’t foresee any major fallout for the judicial amendment.

“I don’t know that we’re losing Democrats on judicial issues,” he said. “I certainly don’t hear a groundswell of support on that.”

Haslam and predecessor Bredesen appeared together in Knoxville on Wednesday to support the constitutional amendment on judicial selection. Bredesen told the Knoxville News Sentinel afterward that he thought Cooper, his top legal adviser before his appointment as attorney general in 2006, had “a great run” in that job.

But Bredesen added that “the political realities are such that he wasn’t going to be selected” for another term.

Senate Speaker Ramsey said he met with Justices Lee and Wade after the vote to repair relations after the vote - and to urge them to select a conservative attorney general.

“There has been tension between the legislative branch and the judicial branch, and I’m willing to put that all that behind us, and part of that would be an AG that thought like we did,” he said. “I think all of us were ready to bury the hatchet, so to speak, and move forward from this point.”

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