News

Snow Day for Tennessee Legislature, Votes Moved

Enough members of the Tennessee House and Senate braved the winter storm gripping the state to hold scheduled floor sessions today, but they decided to move the balance of their bills to next week because of heavy absences. Seventy of 99 House members were in attendance, as were 23 of 33 Senators, the Associated Press reports.

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FCC OKs Chattanooga Broadband Expansion

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) ruled last week that Chattanooga may expand its municipal broadband service, overriding a state law blocking the city’s electric utility from expanding its super-fast Internet network beyond its current service area. Tennessee officials who oppose the decision are lining up to block the move, the Associated Press reports. On Tuesday, a group of Republican state lawmakers urged state Attorney General Herbert Slatery to challenge the decision as “a violation of state sovereignty.” Slatery said no decision has been made about next steps but expressed disappointment that the FCC decided to assert authority over a local governmental body. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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President: Court-Appointed Lawyers Should Get Raise

The March issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal includes a lot of criminal justice-related information, including articles exploring the “unnecessary rigor” provision of the Tennessee Constitution, legislative initiatives on privacy and criminal law, and the successes of a residential drug treatment program. In his column, President Jonathan Steen explains why the rate for court-appointed lawyers should be increased. "The compensation rate for lawyers appointed by Tennessee state courts to represent indigent parties in criminal, juvenile and civil cases has not changed in 20 years. The current rate for court-appointed lawyers is $40 per hour for out-of-court work and $50 per hour for in-court work," he writes. "At $40 an hour for out-of-court work, Tennessee court-appointed lawyers are the lowest paid in the nation."

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Senator Criticizes Post-Conviction Defender’s Office

The state agency that defends death row inmates is being criticized for using taxpayer dollars to pay for a lawsuit seeking information on executions, Knoxnews reports. State Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, said the Office of Post-Conviction Defender exceeded its authority when it filed a civil suit seeking the identities of executioners and types of drugs used in an execution. The office disputes Yager’s interpretation saying the law allows it to get involved in “collateral matters.”

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Bill Gives Legislature Power to Set Trial Court Terms

Tennessee trial judges’ terms of service would be set by the General Assembly rather than the state constitution under a new bill proposed by state Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis. The measure, HJR 91, would delete the last sentence of Article 4 in the state constitution, which sets terms at eight years. It has been assigned to the Civil Justice Committee. Gavel to Gavel has more on the proposal.

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Kansas Lawmakers Move to Dismantle Merit Selection

A Kansas State House committee has approved two proposals to end the merit-based selection of Supreme Court justices. One proposal would institute contested, partisan elections for the court, while the other would give the governor unilateral appointment authority, subject to confirmation by the state Senate, according to the Associated Press. Gavel to Gavel reports on the move and raises question about whether either proposal could capture the two-thirds vote needed for House passage. Similar efforts in 2013 were blocked by that requirement, it notes.

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Legislative Session Starts to Heat Up

Activity in the Tennessee General Assembly is now in full swing. Keep track of the action by following the TBA Action List for news about bills the TBA has a direct interest in -- those it has initiated, taken a position on, or has a policy on -- or the TBA Watch List, which offers a broader list of bills of interest to the Tennessee legal community.

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Politics, Policy Focus for TBALL Class Session

Despite challenging weather across the state, members of the TBA Leadership Law class met today in Nashville for a day learning about in policy and politics. The class heard from U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, state Sen. Jeff Yarbro and two lawyer lobbyists. Class members also participated in a mock legislative committee meeting to learn more about how the legislative process works. They capped off the day by attending TBA’s annual Big Shrimp Reception honoring members of the General Assembly and legislative staff.

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Hooker Says ‘Death with Dignity’ His Last Fight

John Jay Hooker tells Frank Daniels with the Tennessean that after a long and very public career, he wants his final legacy to be giving Tennesseans the right to choose how they die. “It is the ultimate civil right,” Hooker says, “to be able to die with dignity, while you still have some choice in the matter.” Last week, Hooker began telling friends that he has been diagnosed with cancer and wants to dedicate his remaining time to passing a Tennessee Death with Dignity law. Last Thursday, Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, filed a bill to start the process. Though he has deep misgivings about such laws, Fitzhugh said he did it out of respect for Hooker and his lifelong fight for civil rights.

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Bill Would Raise Rate for Court Appointed Counsel

A bill to increase the rate court appointed attorneys are paid to $100 per hour was filed today in the General Assembly. Senate Bill 1009 and House Bill 1025 were introduced with bipartisan sponsorship in  both houses, with Sen. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, sponsoring the bill in the Senate and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, and Rep. Andy Farmer, R-Sevierville, sponsoring the bill in the House. The proposal -- a TBA policy initiative in this legislative session -- would enact the first increase in the hourly rate for these attorneys since 1994.

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Public Defender Funding Could Take Hit Under Proposal

A law that ensures budget increases for prosecutors include a corresponding increase for public defenders would go away under legislation introduced last week by state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville. House Bill 241 would delete TCA 16-5-518 in its entirety. The law, which has been on the books since the early 1990s, governs increases in local funding, not state budgets. Go to TBAImpact to weigh in.

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Lawmakers Vote Down 'Insure Tennessee'

Gov. Bill Haslam's "Insure Tennessee" plan was effectively killed today after the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare voted 4-7 to defeat the proposal. Haslam spent nearly two years negotiating with federal officials to find an alternative for expanding Medicaid in the state. The plan would have used federal funds to expand coverage to about 280,000 additional Tennesseans and cover 100 percent of the program's cost for two years, after which federal support drops down to 90 percent.

Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, made a final, personal plea to committee members, telling them that they should at least vote to let the full Senate get a chance to weigh in. “I did put my heart into it because I felt that strongly that it’s the right thing to do," Overbey told WPLN following the vote. Asked if he would try to push his plan during the regular session of the legislature, Haslam said that seemed "a little pointless." He also said it was unlikely that the federal government would agree to some of the changes legislators requested, though he said he was willing to try. With no prospects of passing the plan, both the House and Senate formally ended their respective special sessions this evening. The Nashville Business Journal has more.

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Harwell: Gas Tax Increase Unlikely this Year

House Speaker Beth Harwell says that Tennessee lawmakers are unlikely to take up a gas tax increase during this year's legislative session. Speaking to a joint conference by the National Federation of Independent Business and the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association on Tuesday, Harwell said lawmakers are interested in discussing ways to "broaden the base" of transportation funding to make up for losses from vehicles with better fuel mileage and electric cars. The Tennessean has more.

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TBJ Explores Mentoring, More

Mentoring programs have benefits not only for those being mentored, but also for those doing the mentoring. In the February Journal, learn about the lessons these unique relationships can teach us. TBA President Jonathan Steen stresses the importance of having a good working relationship with your legislator. And, as the magazine continues celebrating its 50th birthday, look at some of the legal stories that made news in the late '60s. 

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Tennessee Lobbyists Spent Record Amount in 2014

Groups lobbying Tennessee lawmakers spent $725,000 last year on 96 events, the Nashville Business Journal reports. That is a record amount in Tennessee, according to reports from the Knoxville News Sentinel. For comparison, groups spent $650,000 in 2013 and $565,318 in 2012.

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House Speaker Removes 2 Committee Chairs

In a shakeup of House committees, Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell replaced two chairmen, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. Harwell replaced Government Operations Committee Chairman Judd Matheny, R-Tullahoma, with Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, and Local Government Committee Chairman Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, with Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan. The moves, announced over the weekend, also resulted in the elevation of several new committee chairmen and vice chairmen as several top positions were reshuffled or else had been left vacant by members who didn't run for re-election in 2014.

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Lawmakers Re-elect Constitutional Officers

A joint session of the state House and Senate today approved new terms for two of the state’s constitutional officers, Nashville News Channel 5 reports. Comptroller Justin Wilson, a Nashville tax attorney and former aide to Gov. Don Sundquist, and Treasurer David Lillard, a financial and tax attorney from Germantown and former member of the Shelby County Commission, were re-elected to their fourth two-year terms. Secretary of State Tre Hargett is in the middle of a four-year term so he did not stand for re-election.

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Legislative Session Kicks Off with Ceremonial Duties

Tennessee lawmakers today kicked off a largely symbolic start to the 109th General Assembly, the Tennessean and WBIR report. Republican Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville and Sen. Ron Ramsey of Blountville were re-elected as speakers of the House and Senate. Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley was elected minority leader and Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville was named caucus chairman. Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, took over as minority leader pro tem – a new position created by House Democrats to work with the governor’s office on policy. The real action was on the streets, however, as hundreds of protesters opposed to new restrictions on abortions marched on the capitol. The organizational session will last until Gov. Bill Haslam’s inauguration on Saturday. Lawmakers then will go on a two-week break.

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Proposed Bill Would Require 'Informed Consent' for Abortions

Doctors would need to provide women more information about pregnancies and abortions before performing an abortion if a bill filed Wednesday in the Tennessee General Assembly becomes law. The “informed consent” proposal comes from state Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and would restore a law that was in effect in Tennessee before a 2000 state Supreme Court ruling that drastically changed abortion laws in the state. The Tennessean has the story.

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Tennessee Senators to Chair Key Committees

U.S. Senate Republicans, now in charge of the chamber, have named two Tennessee senators to key committee posts. Sen. Lamar Alexander today was elected chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Chattanoogan.com reports. Sen. Bob Corker was elected as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. He has served for many years as the ranking member of that committee, News Channel 9 reports.

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Gov. Haslam Urges Caution on New Abortion Laws

Gov. Bill Haslam is urging legislators to step carefully when it comes to enacting new abortion laws, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. His comments came in response to questions about a bill pre-filed by Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, for the 109th General Assembly. Womick's legislation would require that women seeking to terminate their pregnancies first undergo an ultrasound of the fetus or hear a physician's lecture. A somewhat similar North Carolina law was ruled unconstitutional last month by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for violating doctors' First Amendment guarantees of free speech. "I think anything we do, we should pay attention to what's been ruled legal or not in other states," Haslam told the Times Free Press. "Let's not go charging up hills that other folks have charged up and have found were outside the law."

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TBA Divorce Filings Initiative Gets Media Coverage

The TBA's legislative initiative to revise the timeline for when divorce filings become public is explored in today's Tennessean. The newspaper interviewed TBA President Jonathan Steen and Executive Director Allan Ramsaur, quoting Ramsaur as saying that sometimes court filings become public before a responding spouse has been notified and served with a protective order. That can raise safety issues for the filing spouse who may not have time to put plans in place to protect against retribution. “We think a targeted solution to this problem is that information about the filing of divorce should be delayed until the respondent is served,” Steen told the paper.

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Johnson Withdraws from Democratic Party Chair Election

Former state Rep. Gloria Johnson is withdrawing from the race for state Democratic Party chair saying that she is in talks with Organizing for America to take over as Tennessee director for the group, Knoxnews reports. Johnson was on a list recommended by a special committee to the Democratic Party Executive Committee, whose members will select a a new chair Jan. 10. Others in the race are Knoxville lawyer Terry Adams, former state Senate candidate Mary Mancini of Nashville and Lenda Sherrell, a Fourth Congressional District candidate who lost in November. Whoever is selected will replace Roy Herron, who announced in September he would not seek a second term. Herron’s wife, Nancy Miller-Herron, revealed Sunday that Herron suffered a heart attack Dec. 1 but is recuperating well. The paper has that story as well.

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Ramsey Weighs Democrat Committee Assignments

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is weighing the appointment of Democratic members to the state Senate’s nine committees -- an especially difficult task given the small size of the caucus. Ramsey also told the Tennessean that he is looking at whether to reward those elected to leadership positions or those with seniority with plum positions. He also predicted that though the Democratic caucus is small, it would be a "little more lively" than in the past.

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Abortion Bill Struck Down in North Carolina

A proposed Tennessee abortion regulation is similar to a North Carolina law deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court this week, the Tennessean reports. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in part Monday that North Carolina could not require a doctor to describe the images of an ultrasound because it would violate First Amendment rights to free speech, according to the 37-page opinion. Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, who introduced Tennessee’s ultrasound bill, said yesterday the opinion in no way changes his desire to see his bill become law in Tennessee. He also noted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled a similar proposal in Texas was constitutional, arguing a final decision could be needed from the U.S. Supreme Court.

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