I beg your pardon: The evolution of Herbert Slatery

Betty BeanKnox Scene

On Thursday, the Nashville Tennessean criticized the 17 Republican state attorneys general who signed on to the Texas attorney general’s lawsuit aimed overturning the election of Joe Biden before the Electoral College meets on Monday (12/14).


“Seventeen Republican state attorneys general, including Tennessee’s Herbert Slatery, say they are making a point of law in trying to prevent four states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) from casting their electoral votes on Monday. What they are really doing, however, is participating in a publicity stunt that is dangerous for democracy and for the people running elections in their states,” the editorial said.

Slatery defended his action as necessary:

“This is not something new. Texas’s action in the Supreme Court seeks to vindicate the same important separation-of-powers principles, and that is why we joined Missouri s amicus brief in support of that action.”

The Tennessean didn’t buy Slatery’s high-minded response, and neither should you. Whether he knows it or not, he is participating in what looks a lot like a ploy for Texas AG Ken Paxton – who has been under indictment for securities fraud since 2015 – to snag himself one of the pardons Donald Trump is giving out like valentines.

Back here in Slatery’s hometown, it seems odd to see the quiet, churchgoing, business lawyer embroiling himself in this kind of chicanery. Old friends are bumfuzzled.

Reporters and lawyers are like peas and carrots. We’re thrown together in courtrooms and public meetings, in lunchrooms and after-hours watering holes. We forge mutually beneficial relationships – they deliver story fodder; we deliver name recognition. Some of my best friends are lawyers. But flamboyant criminal defense lawyers and quotable lawyer-lobbyists who become local celebrities represent just a small fraction of the nearly 2,000 members of the Knoxville bar, most of whom are doing routine legal work that doesn’t attract much attention. Some of them actively avoid the media. For many years, if somebody mentioned the name Herb, I’d think Moncier, not Slatery. And I’m probably not alone.

I’ve since been instructed that Slatery, a Knoxville blueblood, prefers to be called Herbert, which I would have known if I’d ever covered anything involving him other than a meeting of a city development board that he represented. The only reason it was memorable was because the project up for consideration seemed like such bad idea. Slatery thought otherwise and shepherded it through. It was boring, not crooked.

It’s not like Herbert H. Slatery III was laboring in obscurity. He had practiced law here for 30 years and was well known in professional circles even before the newly-elected Gov. Bill Haslam asked him to serve as his legal counsel in 2011. This job offer came as no surprise – the two are lifelong friends and Slatery was Haslam’s campaign treasurer the first time he ran for mayor.

Slatery did some very substantive work for Haslam – like shepherding the tort reform bill that drastically reduced workers compensation rights and all but eliminated medical malpractice lawsuits – and by the time he threw his name in the hat to become state attorney general in 2014, he was steeped in Republican politics. Since taking on the job, he has staked out his space on the right wing by demonstrating an appetite for stepping up death-row executions and cracking down on transgender kids, maybe to offset the compassion he showed to young people who were losing DACA protections.

Then came the 2020 presidential election amid the covid pandemic. Most states made plans to expand absentee/mail voting, to reduce in-person voting on election day. Now the Texas AG wants the Supreme Court to overturn election results in four states. Read his reasoning here. Now read Slatery’s June 5, 2020, position on Tennessee’s election-rules changes. Almost identical. Perhaps Slatery should ask the Supreme Court to overturn Tennessee’s “unconstitutional changes,” rather than pick on four states that just happened to be carried by Joe Biden. But duh. That is Paxton’s point – a political maneuver to overturn Biden’s election.

Slatery’s steady move to the right and his willingness to be used by Paxton has puzzled some of his old friends, who tend to be the kind of Republicans (like Haslam) who are called RINOs by the Trumplicans. Maybe it’s fear of Donald Trump. Maybe it’s something else. We should know by the time the Electors cast their votes on Monday.

Meanwhile, there are some folks back home who are gob-smacked by Slatery’s latest move.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com and today is pinch-hitting for Friday columnist Sandra Clark.

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