General-ly Speaking

| August 29, 2013

In our issue of two weeks ago, the Flyer reported the news (Politics, August 8th) that Tennessee's chief legal officer, state Attorney General Robert Cooper, has associated the state with the U.S. Department of Justice, a handful of other states, and the District of Columbia in an antitrust action seeking to block the proposed merger of American Airlines and U.S. Airways.

Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper
  • Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper

In the same article, we also noted that at least two efforts are afoot in the Tennessee legislature to alter the way in which the state's attorney general is appointed. One of those would transfer the appointive power from the state Supreme Court, where it now exists, to the legislature itself. The other, by Germantown's GOP state senator Brian Kelsey, would confer that authority upon the electorate at large.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Cooper disapproved of both initiatives in an address Tuesday to a luncheon meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club at the University Club. Cooper noted that the alternative modes under consideration invited more direct entanglement with politics per se than does Tennessee's method. As he pointed out, the system of direct election prevails in all the states surrounding Tennessee, and in all of those states the position of attorney general is so pointedly regarded as a stepping stone to higher office that the initials "A.G." might as well stand for "aspiring governor."

(For direct evidence of that, Arkansas is perhaps the best example. Virtually every attorney general in that state's history has sought the governorship, and many have achieved it ­— notably one Bill Clinton, who famously went even further in politics, to the presidency of the United States.)

Cooper told the Rotarians that he relishes being able to provide unbiased legal advice to Tennessee's legislative and executive branches without any political obligations, actual or implied, to either.

And, as he reprised some of the fruits of that advice to the Rotarians, members of his audience might have experienced a sense of gratitude as well. He pointed with pride to several distinct actions of his office:

• A task force on "mortgage rescue" scams that brought the perpetrators of that particular racket to heel in the wake of the 2007 financial downturn and returned some $200 million to defrauded individuals in the state;

• Direct action by another task force against hothouse firms guilty of TennCare-provider fraud, retrieving $160 million for the state coffers;

• Environmental enforcement actions against careless and/or shady developers whose actions were causing extensive pollution damage;

• His actions in the recent airline merger case, which, as he noted, could have particularly beneficial results for Memphians, already faced with rising fares and diminishing flights ­— circumstances owing much to the squeeze on competition produced by previous mergers.

Cooper did not mention, but might have, his willingness to take controversial decisions, as when he found one law enabling municipal school systems unconstitutional, thereby forcing the legislature to enact another one that was conspicuously more equitable; or when he ruled against wholesale changes to the state annexation law of 1968.

All things considered, we have to agree with Cooper, who opined that, in his view, it was the other states that should pattern their mode of appointing an attorney general after Tennessee, "not the other way around."

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