Lang Wiseman

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.”

Wiseman to leave Lee administration on Friday

Deputy to the Governor Lang Wiseman, left, and then-Finance Commissioner Stuart McWhorter confer before Gov. Bill Lee’s first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Lang Wiseman, the deputy to Gov. Bill Lee and the administration’s chief legal counsel, is stepping down on Friday. Wiseman’s plans to leave had been announced earlier, but he had not given a firm date for his departure. Lee has yet to name a successor.

Wiseman is a former University of Tennessee basketball star who went on to earn a law degree from Harvard University. He is also a former Shelby County Republican Party chair who later served on the reconstituted UT board. Wiseman’s departure coincides with a changing of the guard in the chief of staff position. Blake Harris, who was a top Lee campaign adviser, is being succeeded by Joseph Williams, who previously handled outreach to conservative activists.

Here’s is an email sent by Wiseman on Monday:

After announcing a number of weeks ago that I would be transitioning back to the private sector, I wanted to confirm that my last day of service in the Governor’s Office is scheduled for this next Friday, December 3rd.  I wanted also to take moment to say what an honor and privilege it has been to serve alongside you these past few years.  I will certainly miss the meaningful work and opportunity to serve, but I will miss most the people with whom I’ve been so fortunate to walk this journey, and I hope and expect to continue our friendship.  Thank you so much for your many kindnesses, assistance, understanding, and patience shown to me along the way.

My plan is to stay here in Nashville and, after a few weeks off to recharge, to start my next professional endeavor in January (the specifics of which I am still mulling over).  […]  Please do not ever hesitate to reach out. 

Looking forward to keeping in touch.

Griffey defends caucus move after wife denied judicial post

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) attends a meeting at the legislative office building in Nashville on Dec. 20, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Bruce Griffey and his wife, Rebecca, were outraged when Republican Gov. Bill Lee selected Huntingdon attorney Jennifer King to become the chancellor for the judicial district covering Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin, and Henry counties.

Rebecca Griffey had failed to make the list of three finalists for the position in June, but her husband had been lobbying the governor to choose her anyway — even offering Harvey Durham, the father of ousted former state Rep. Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), as having particular insight over the matter. In a letter to Lang Wiseman, the governor’s top legal adviser, Bruce Griffey said it would be a “gross miscarriage of justice” if his wife didn’t end up on the bench, according to correspondence obtained by The Tennessee Journal under public records laws.

Despite those entreaties, Lee on Sept. 4 announced he had chosen King from the list of three finalists. Two days later, Rebecca Griffey took to Facebook to express her anger.

“Today was a big slap in the face to longtime, dedicated Republicans who have devoted blood, sweat, tears and money for years to the Republican cause,” she wrote.

Wiseman took note of the Facebook post, texting a copy to Bruce Griffey on Sept. 6.

“Why are you txt me this?” Griffey responded. Then the lawmaker sent him the copy of a news story about former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile saying she had “proof” that Hillary Clinton had rigged the presidential primary in 2016.

It’s unclear why Griffey sent Wiseman the link to that story, but it was then that King alleges the Griffeys and their allies began manipulating county Republican officials and the state GOP, where Rebecca Griffey is an executive committee member, to give them greater sway over who would be the party’s nominee for the chancellorship in 2020 — in other words, not King. So just nine days after her appointment to the bench, she quit.

The Republican parties in the five counties comprising the 24th District had been given the option of whether to hold a primary election for the chancellorship, or to plot the more unusual course of holding caucuses to determine their standard bearer. When the vote was tallied, the preference among the majority was to hold a primary.

Under party rules, the counties were bound by the decision of the majority to inform their respective county election commissions that they were going to hold a primary. Three county parties did, but those in Henry and Hardin counties failed to submit the notices by the June 17 deadline. King wrote in her resignation letter that what should have happened next is that the two counties that failed to submit their filings should have been excluded from the nomination contest.

But on Sept. 6 — two days after King’s appointment and the same day Bruce Griffey sent the cryptic text message about the “rigged” Democratic primary — the state party informed the county parties that a majority had asked to reconvene to reconsider its actions. This time the vote was 8-2 to abandon the primary and instead hold a caucus. King alleged in her letter to the governor that nothing in state GOP bylaws allowed for that redo. The party says it consulted with state Division of Elections before going forward with another vote.

Bruce Griffey in a statement said the decision to hold a caucus had “nothing whatsoever to do with Ms. King being appointed by Governor Lee.” Instead, he said, the decision needed to ensure that all five counties got a chance to participate in the nomination process.

But the timing of various votes has led to widespread speculation that GOP officials in Henry and Hardin counties purposefully withheld their filings so the case could be made later that that it wouldn’t be right to exclude them from the nomination contest.

Not so, Griffey said it in his statement.

“It was a matter of fundamental fairness in allowing all 5 counties in the district to participate and was done in accordance with the TN GOP Bylaws,” he said.