NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee’s new top prosecutor came into the role with experience as the department’s Chief Deputy Attorney General, but still the wide breadth of issues coming across Jonathan Skrmetti’s desk surprised him.
“It’s been busier than I expected. There were just a lot of legal issues that the state is involved in,” Skrmetti said. “I had a good idea about some of them but there are always other things coming up.”
One of the first debates dominating the news as he was sworn in less than two weeks ago was Tennessee’s near-total ban on abortions going into effect.
The law doesn’t include exceptions for doctors seeking to perform abortions to save the life of the mother but instead was written as a legal defense.
Doctors in the state have said they now fear their medical decisions will land them in court despite their best intentions.
“The law protects doctors. Affirmative defenses are not a novel idea that just came along with this law. They’ve been expanded in America and before that, hundreds of years,” Skrmetti said.
He added a doctor’s top priority is still saving the patient’s life.
“This is a law that provides them with a defense such that if they act to save the patient’s life. They’re protected,” he said.
When asked for his thoughts on why the law was written this way, he stressed he enforces laws and does not make them.
“That’s a decision that the legislature made. I can’t speak to why they went that route, but it is a very well-established mechanism in the law to provide affirmative defenses.” Skrmetti explained.
In response to the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office’s previous statements saying they would not prosecute abortion-related cases, Skrmetti said he has the power to petition a new prosecutor to take over the case.
“It’s a very fact-intensive inquiry. And I think it has to be predicated by some evidence that there’s a crime to be prosecuted. So I would, I would defer on that for now. But there is, ultimately, some authority that lives with my office to seek a Pro Tem DA under appropriate circumstances,” he said.
Yet, abortion wasn’t the only controversial issue Skrmetti has had to tackle since beginning his eight-year term as Attorney General.
On Monday, he released a letter sent to the U.S. Department of Education with support from 19 other attorneys general contesting the Department’s redefinition of “sex” in Title IX to include “gender identity.”
When asked why this was a decision he made in his first couple of weeks in this role, he said he did so to meet a legal deadline.
“Some of the regulations that the federal government was proposing contradict some of the state law that our legislature has passed… when the federal government is overreaching and intruding into an area where the state has the policy-making authority it is my job to make sure the federal government stays in its lane,” he said.
Skrmetti also said this change goes against lawmakers’ original intent of the law.
“We’ve had a lot of changes lately in some people’s understanding of what sex means, but if you look back at the time, that the Civil Rights Act was passed, Title IX was passed, sex was understood to mean biological sex. And women were discriminated against,” he said.
After Skrmetti released this letter, the Tennessee Equality Project said they want the Attorney General to meet with some of the trans and non-binary students who could be impacted by this decision.
“These schools exist to serve everyone. Equal protection of the law must be the touchstone for all our thinking about education policy. Transgender and non-binary students have dreams for a better future and it’s incredibly sad when their state government actively looks for ways to stand in the way,” Executive Director Chris Sanders said.
Looking towards the future, Skrmetti says one issue he feels passionately about and has experience in is consumer protection, particularly online.
“I think there are some really big data privacy issues and there are some associated antitrust issues. We’ve seen a consolidation of the tech industry in ways that have not necessarily been good for consumers. And so I want to make sure that we’re working for transparency and accountability on that front,” he said.
He also said opioid-related litigation would continue to be one of his focuses.
“Tennessee has been affected to a devastating extent by the opioid epidemic. And there are collateral consequences like the rise of fentanyl. And so there are opportunities there to help protect Tennesseans,” he added.
But a theme he kept returning to was that his overarching goal is to ensure there are “bright lines” keeping the federal government from intervening in policies he says should be left up to the states.