Jonathan T. Skrmetti

Lee names new communications director, legal counsel

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee on Monday announced Casey Black Sellars will take over from Laine Arnold as commutations director and Erin Merrick will succeed Jonathan Skrmetti as chief legal counsel. Arnold is moving to Lee’s re-election campaign while the state Supreme Court named Skrmetti attorney general last week.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced the appointments of Erin Merrick to succeed Jonathan Skrmetti as Chief Legal Counsel, effective September 1, and Casey Black Sellers to succeed Laine Arnold as Director of Communications, effective September 2. Skrmetti will assume the role of Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter. Arnold will lead communications for the governor’s re-election campaign in addition to starting a strategic communications venture for corporations and causes.

“Jonathan is a brilliant legal mind with vast experience at the state and federal levels, and Tennesseans will be well-represented by his service as Attorney General,” said Lee. “Erin is a dedicated public servant who will lead with integrity and bring significant expertise as Chief Legal Counsel, and I appreciate her continued service to Tennessee.”

Erin Merrick currently serves as Lee’s deputy legal counsel, a role she has held since 2019. Previously, Merrick was an assistant attorney general in the Tennessee Office of the Attorney General, where she practiced state and federal civil litigation before both trial and appellate courts. Merrick earned her bachelor’s degree at American University and holds a master’s degree in Economics and Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt University.

“Laine’s leadership and insight as Communications Director and Senior Advisor have played an invaluable role in my administration. I commend her work to ensure key priorities and accomplishments were communicated effectively, and Maria and I treasure her friendship,” said Lee. “Casey has been an integral member of our team, and I have full confidence that her extensive communications experience will continue to serve Tennesseans well.”

Casey Black Sellers currently serves as Lee’s press secretary. Sellers has deep experience in state and federal political communications, including service with U.S. Representative David Kustoff of Tennessee and former U.S. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee. Sellers earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Jade Cooper Byers, currently deputy press secretary, will assume key responsibilities as Lee’s press secretary. Byers earned her bachelor’s degree at Belmont University and has served Lee since his successful primary run in 2018.

New TNJ alert: New AG, Democratic infighting, and another rejection of loosening term limits

AG applicants pose for a photo outside the state Supreme Court chamber on Aug. 9, 2022. From left are Bill Young, Jonathan Skrmetti, Culver Schmid, Don Cochran, Mike Dunavant, and Jerome Cochran.

The latest print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Supreme Court appoints Gov. Bill Lee’s top legal adviser Skrmetti as new AG.

— Skrmetti in public interview posited creating a new unit to handle lawsuits against the federal government, acknowledged “hunger” for more formal legal opinions.

— From the campaign trail: Democrats fight over text message flap, tiebreaker options in Cocke County, and Memphis voters don’t want their elected officials to serve more than two terms.

— Obituary: Larry Wallace, TBI director in wake of bingo gambling corruption probe.

Also: Lee joins GOP governors blasting climate bill that includes tax credits for electric vehicles (many of which will be built in Tennessee), constitutional amendment campaigns ramp up activity, and diverging fortunes for write-in campaigns.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Supreme Court picks Skrmetti for AG

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec.8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Supreme Court has chosen Jonathan Skrmetti to succeed Herbert Slatery as attorney general.

UPDATE: The vote was 4-1, with Justice Sharon Lee dissenting. The order did not include an explanation by Lee, the only justice appointed by a Democrat, about why she disagreed with her colleagues Jeff Bivins, Sarah Campbell, Holly Kirby, and Roger Page.

Here’s the release from the high court:

Nashville – The Tennessee Supreme Court has selected Jonathan Skrmetti to serve as the state’s next Attorney General and Reporter.

From 2018 to late 2021, Skrmetti was the Chief Deputy Attorney General in the Attorney General’s Office, where he managed approximately 160 attorneys in 15 litigating divisions and served as a negotiator in the $26 billion multistate opioid settlement. Since December 2021, he has served as chief counsel to Governor Bill Lee.

“Mr. Skrmetti has dedicated the majority of his career to public service and has the breadth of experience and vision necessary to lead the Attorney General’s office for the next eight years,” Chief Justice Roger A. Page said. “He is an accomplished attorney with a deep understanding of Tennessee government and our judicial system.”

Over his career, Skrmetti has worked extensively with the three branches of Tennessee state government, appearing before all levels of the judiciary, drafting language and advocating in support of legislation, and providing counsel to leadership throughout the executive branch.

“It will be a privilege to continue serving the people of Tennessee as their Attorney General and Reporter,” Skrmetti said. “I look forward to working with the dedicated public servants at the Attorney General’s office to represent all three branches of Tennessee’s government. I thank the Supreme Court for entrusting me with this responsibility and General Herbert Slatery for his eight years of distinguished leadership.”

The Supreme Court formally interviewed six candidates during a public hearing earlier this week.

Prior to joining the Attorney General’s office, Skrmetti was a partner at Butler Snow LLP in Memphis. From 2011 to 2014, he was an Assistant United States Attorney in the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee, where he prosecuted federal crimes with an emphasis on human trafficking, official misconduct and hate crimes. Skrmetti also spent five years as an Honors Program Trial Attorney in the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division/Criminal Section. During this time, he spent the vast majority of his time in West and Middle Tennessee and handled all phases of litigation. Skrmetti also served as a law clerk for Judge Steven M. Colloton on the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Skrmetti is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy. He earned undergraduate degrees from both the University of Oxford (England) and George Washington University.  He is a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy, and the Memphis Bar Foundation. He was a part of Leadership Tennessee Signature Program Class VIII.

Skrmetti will be the 28th Tennessee Attorney General and Reporter. He lives in Franklin with his wife and four children. His family attends Harpeth Hills Church of Christ in Brentwood.

Lee’s legal counsel Skrmetti, attorney Schmid apply for AG

Jonathan Skrmetti, the top legal adviser to Gov. Bill Lee since December, has applied for attorney general ahead of Friday’s deadline, The Tennessee Journal has learned. Also putting his name in was Knoxville attorney Culver Schmid of the Baker Donelson law firm.

They join four others who previously submitted applications to the state Supreme Court.

Skrmetti had been chief deputy to Attorney General Herbert Slatery when he decided to apply for a state Supreme Court vacancy last year. But he abandoned that bid at the last moment to instead join the Lee administration after Lang Wiseman decided to return to the private sector (Wiseman, incidentally, has decided against applying for AG).

Skrmetti is a Harvard law graduate who worked for the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis from 2011 to 2014. While later working at Butler Snow, Skrmetti was a member of the legal advisory board for the Beacon Center, the conservative think tank and advocacy group. Hired as the No. 2 position in the AG’s office in 2018, he spearheaded the state’s efforts to negotiate a $26 billion national settlement with opioid producers and distributors.

Schmid, a 2008 state Supreme Court applicant, defended Rep. Eddie Mannis against an effort to have him stripped of his narrow GOP primary win in 2020. He also served on the Tennessee Commission on Practical Government in 1995.

The deadline to apply for AG was noon Friday. The other applicants are:

— Donald Cochran, former U.S. attorney for the middle district of Tennessee.

— Jerome Cochran, a former state representative and administrative law judge.

— Mike Dunavant, former U.S. attorney for the western district of Tennessee.

— Bill Young, executive director of the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Public interviews of finalists are scheduled to be conducted on Aug. 8 and Aug. 9.

Big shakeup in Supreme Court sweepstakes as Lee to hire Skrmetti as legal counsel

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec.8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Just as the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments was getting ready to interview candidates for a state Supreme Court vacancy on Wednesday, The Tennessee Journal has learned a major contender is dropping out to instead become Gov. Bill Lee’s top legal adviser.

Jonathan T. Skrmetti, the chief deputy to state Attorney General Herbert Slatery will succeed Lang Wiseman, who stepped down on Friday.

Skrmetti is a Harvard law graduate who worked for the civil rights division of the U.S. Justice Department before serving as an assistant U.S. attorney in Memphis from 2011 to 2014. While later working at Butler Snow, Skrmetti was a member of the legal advisory board for the Beacon Center, the conservative think tank and advocacy group. Hired as the No. 2 position in the AG’s office in 2018, he spearheaded the state’s efforts to negotiate a $26 billion national settlement with opioid producers and distributors.

Skrmetti’s withdrawal from the Supreme Court application process leaves nine candidates for job. The Council for Judicial Appointments will narrow the field down to three for Lee to choose from.

UPDATE: The governor’s office has made it official:

“Jonathan is a dedicated public servant and highly qualified legal professional,” Lee said in a release. “He will bring significant experience and tremendous value to our work on behalf of Tennesseans, and I am confident he will continue to serve our state with integrity.”