capitol commission

Speakers seek rare AG’s opinion on effort to move Forrest bust

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Asking for a legal opinion from the state attorney general used to be a routine procedure. But these days, Herbert Slatery deigns to opine on only a handful of issues — and then only ones that aren’t likely to result in litigation.

So it will be interesting to see what Slatery does in response to a request for a legal opinion from House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) about whether Gov. Bill Lee is following proper procedure for moving the controversial bust of Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave trader and early Ku Klux Klan leader, from the state Capitol.

The Tennessee Historical Commission is scheduled to meet later this week for what is supposed to be the final step in an extensive process required to change historical markers or monuments.

Sexton and McNally argue the Lee administration missed an intermediate step after the State Capitol Commission voted in favor of a petition asking for the move’s approval. The speakers pointed to language in the code requiring the State Building Commission to concur with any action by the Capitol Commission. That did not happen in this case.

Four of the six members of the Building Commission also serve on the Capitol panel, and each of those four voted in favor of moving the bust. But the two who happen not to serve on both commissions are Sexton and McNally.

It’s the latest twist in the Forrest bust saga. When Lee appeared to have the votes on the Capitol Commission to recommend the move last year, lawmakers made an 11th-hour maneuver to add two more House and Senate representatives to the panel in an effort to block it. Lee, who hadn’t been consulted about changing the makeup of the panel, decided to call its next meeting before signing the new law into effect.

In Slatery’s first full year at the helm in 2015, his office issued 81 legal opinions. The output dropped to about 50 each in the following three years, before plummeting to 20 in 2019 and just 17 in 2020.