The resignation of U.S. Attorney Donald Cochran jumpstarts a compelling behind-the-scenes process leading to President Joe Biden appointing a replacement from a deep pool of Democratic-leaning lawyers in Nashville.
It’s been seven years since a Democratic president appointed a U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed career prosecutor David Rivera to the top job.
The appointment process is thorny in Tennessee since reportedly Biden has decided to reinstitute the “blue slip” process where U.S. Senators must sign off on potential appointees. Since Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Sen. Bill Hagerty are both Republicans, it makes the selection process complicated in the liberal bastion that is Nashville.
Cochran, appointed by Trump in 2017, announced his resignation on Monday effective at the end of the month. It is common for U.S. Attorneys to resign when the other party takes over the White House.
The selection of a new U.S. Attorney comes at a critical time since the office is in the thick of its most high profile case in many years – the criminal investigation into a trio of state lawmakers including Rep. Glen Casada.
Already the names of potential candidates have emerged in the Nashville political gossip circles. The U.S. Attorney for the Nashville office oversees a district covering 23 counties and over 2 million people. The daily requirements of the job can often be unheralded since the vast majority of federal court cases do not receive media attention. But, the job can also propel an attorney’s career forward. Nashville attorneys Jerry Martin and Ed Yarbrough are among the appointees who have held the role in the past.
Among the potential candidates are former federal prosecutor and current criminal defense Attorney Alex Little. Just 42 years old, Little served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for six years and has an excellent reputation as a defense attorney. He’s also viewed as a possible candidate for political office down the road.
Little received media attention recently for his analysis of the Nashville Christmas morning bombing. Because he regularly serves as a legal analyst for cable news outlets, Little has perhaps the best name recognition of the possible candidates.
Another former federal prosecutor to keep an eye on is Bone McAllester Norton law firm attorney Henry Leventis, the former white collar crime chief and director of litigation for the Nashville U.S. Attorney office.
Politically connected attorney Chris Sabis, with the firm Sherrard, Roe, Voigt and Harbison, is another former federal prosecutor who would make sense for the role. Sabis worked in the U.S. Attorney’s office for more than a decade, focusing on procurement and health care fraud.
There are local prosecutors who could be well positioned for the appointment, particularly assistant District Attorney David Jones, who is viewed as a rising star in Nashville legal and political circles. It should come as no surprise that there are current prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office who are viewed as contenders for the appointment, including veteran assistant U.S. Attorney Ellen Bowden McIntyre.
It may be a turn too early for young assistant U.S. Attorney Rascoe Dean, the son of former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, but considering his family ties and excellent reputation he is a name to watch.
One logical contender would seem to be assistant U.S. Attorney Rob McGuire, who worked his way through the District Attorney’s office handling gang crime cases, but then lost his race for the top job against Funk.
McGuire’s name wasn’t mentioned among insiders as one of the candidates, but that doesn’t mean he is not under consideration. In fact, it would not be surprising if the attorney who ultimately secures the appointment keeps their name below the radar. McGuire is deputy chief of the criminal division.
Meanwhile, Doug Overbey, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, has also tendered his resignation. The only name of interest to surface thus far is Randy Nichols, former District Attorney General for Knox County. Nichols has served as special counsel for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office since 2014 and was a judicial appointee under former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter.
With a Democrat in the White House, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper will play a vital behind-the-scenes role in the appointment. Since he serves in the House, Cooper doesn’t formally confirm Biden’s selection, but his input is obviously welcomed from the Biden White House.
The appointment of a new U.S. Attorney could be the appetizer for the even more high profile appointment to replace federal Judge Aleta Trauger, should the legendary veteran jurist decide to retire during Biden’s tenure.