Tennessee high court pick goes to state AG's office attorney

Friday, January 7, 2022, Vol. 46, No. 1

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday picked a high-level lawyer in the attorney general's office for a vacancy on the state Supreme Court, signaling a likely shift further right for the court.

The Republican governor selected Tennessee Associate Solicitor General Sarah Campbell, who has represented the state on appeals ranging from abortion restrictions to absentee ballots. The 39-year-old previously had stints as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and for Judge William Pryor on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She joined the attorney general's office in 2015.

The selection goes in front of state lawmakers for confirmation, where Republicans have supermajorities in both legislative chambers. Supreme Court justices face "yes-no" retention elections every eight years.

The seat was left vacant by the death of Justice Cornelia Clark last September at the age of 71. She had been diagnosed with cancer.

Clark was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen. All the remaining justices but one — Sharon Lee, also a Bredesen pick — were appointees of former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.

"Sarah is a highly accomplished attorney and brings valuable experience from the federal level, including the U.S. Supreme Court," Lee said of Campbell in a news release. "Her commitment to an originalist interpretation of the state and federal constitutions will serve Tennesseans well. She is well-suited for the state's highest court and I am proud to appoint her to this position."

During her interview last month, Campbell told a nominating panel there would be an "adjustment period" going from an advocate for the state's positions to a neutral judge, but she said she thinks it would only take a short time to adapt, citing her previous judicial clerkships.

"My judicial philosophy is, I think, very similar to Justice Alito's, and Judge Pryor I think would fall into that category as well, and that is that I am an originalist and a textualist," Campbell said during her interview.

Her appellate resume also includes work defending Tennessee's lethal injection protocol for executions. At the trial court level, she has cited work on a lawsuit by Tennessee and 19 other states seeking to halt directives by President Joe Biden's administration that extend federal sex discrimination protections to LGBTQ people, ranging from transgender girls participating in school sports to the use of school and workplace bathrooms that align with a person's gender identity.

"I think a lot of the work that I have been doing for the past six and a half years, the reason that I'm so passionate about it, is that I think that a lot of that work has been moving toward trying to reorient the balance of power between the federal and state government, among the branches of government," Campbell, who grew up in Rogersville, said last month.

She credited the conservative Federalist Society, which had a chapter with events when she attended Duke University for law school, with helping to make her views on legal issues deeper and more nuanced. Campbell, who attended the University of Tennessee for undergraduate school, also worked for Williams and Connolly LLP in Washington.

The other two finalists for the job were state Court of Appeals Judges Kristi Davis and William Neal McBrayer. Eleven candidates applied for the opening, though two dropped out of the running before interviews took place.