News

Lawmakers May Consider Civics Test for Graduation

Beginning in 2017, Tennessee’s public high school students will have to pass a civics test using questions administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to those seeking citizenship, the Johnson City Press reports. The General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring students to answer correctly at least 70 percent of between 25 to 50 questions from the 100 within the test. At this point, passing the test is not a requirement for graduation, but some lawmakers have expressed an interest in making that the case. Only eight other states require statewide testing in civics and only two of those – Ohio and Virginia – require students to pass the test to graduate.

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Groups Join Forces to Preserve Rhea Courthouse

A number of private groups, as well as county government offices, are joining forces to find funds to refurbish the Rhea County Courthouse, the Rhea Herald News reports. The county commission is moving ahead with plans to apply for a Historic Preservation Fund Grant, while the county Historical and Genealogical Society has earmarked $6,700 for courthouse repairs. State Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayton, is pushing for the state to allocate nearly $200,000 in next year’s budget for roof repair. The courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925. A forum on Jan. 15 will allow public debate on future uses of the courthouse as the county’s long term plans call for a new justice center in another location.

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Services Friday for Publisher M. Lee Smith

M. Lee Smith, an influential player in Tennessee Republican politics and longtime publisher and attorney, died yesterday (Dec. 20) from a blood condition. He was 74. A graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, Smith worked as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Judge William E. Miller but soon set his sights on politics and public policy. He joined the staff of Sen. Howard Baker as a legislative assistant in the late 1960s and then became a top aide to Gov. Winfield Dunn in the early 1970s. In 1975, he left government service and founded M. Lee Smith Publishers. Smith is perhaps best known for the Tennessee Journal, a weekly guide to Tennessee government, politics and business that he started. Smith sold the company in 2005, but it remains active today with online and print publications covering law and politics. The Tennessean has more on his life.

Services will be held Friday with visitation at noon and a memorial service at 2 p.m. at Marshall Donnelly Combs Funeral Home in Nashville.

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Vanderbilt to Study Impact of LGBT Policies

Researchers at Vanderbilt University will examine how public policy impacts the health and economics of LGBT people, Nashville Public Radio reports. Funding for the study will come from a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. According to the university’s proposal, researchers will compare data across states to study issues such as how North Carolina’s transgender bathroom bill has impacted economic livelihood, or how non-discrimination policies impact diversity in the workforce. They also will look at the impact of legalizing same-sex marriage and passing laws designed to protect religious freedom. 

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Tennessee Reports Higest Voter Fraud Claims: 40

Though a New York Times investigation found no support for claims that millions of votes were cast illegally on Election Day or that there was widespread fraud, it did find a relatively high number of fraud claims in Tennessee. The Times polled each state and the District of Columbia, compiling data from every jurisdiction except for Kansas. Based on that review, Tennessee had 40 credible allegations of fraud, more than any other state. Mark Goins, the state director of elections, says he believes the high number was due to vigilance by the state. The Nashville Business Journal has more.

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Court Rejects Attempt to Force Action on Garland

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts yesterday denied an attempt to get the court to force the Senate to consider the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, WRCB-TV reports. Roberts rejected the emergency appeal without comment. The lawyer bringing the case, Steven Michel of New Mexico, had argued that Senate obstruction of the nomination violated his rights as a voter under the Constitution. For his part, Garland is preparing to return to the bench of the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., where he serves as chief judge. He is set to start hearing arguments on Jan. 18 according to that court.

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Report: Trump Could ‘Immediately’ Reshape TVA Board

President-elect Donald Trump will get an immediate opportunity to reshape the panel that governs Tennessee’s power utility, Nashville Public Radio suggests in a piece today. That is due mostly to the fact that Congress adjourned for the year without confirming President Barack Obama’s three nominees: Joe Ritch of Huntsville; former gubernatorial candidate Mike McWherter; and Peter Mahurin of Bowling Green. Despite being the largest public utility in the country, TVA’s board has rarely been a priority for any administration, NPR says.

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Internet Sales Tax Survives 1st Legislative Test

Gov. Bill Haslam's proposed rule requiring out-of-state Internet retailers to collect sales tax from Tennessee customers passed its first legislative test yesterday, the Times Free Press reports. Opponents, who had sought to add a “negative recommendation” to the bill, failed in that effort during the Joint Government Operations Committee session. The rule now becomes part of an omnibus bill covering proposed rules across state government. The next step will be the individual House and Senate Government Operations Committees, where opponents could try to strip the rule from the bill.

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Report: 2 Testify in Possible Durham Bribery Case

Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed witnesses to testify before a grand jury considering criminal charges against former state lawmaker Jeremy Durham, the Tennessean reports. One witness told the Tennessean that questions focused on Durham’s use of campaign funds. A copy of one subpoena obtained by the paper indicates the grand jury is investigating “federal criminal laws involving, but not necessarily limited to, bribery, mail fraud and wire fraud.”

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Immigration Activists Call for Unified Resistance

Immigration reformers must coordinate their efforts to combat threatening policies from the incoming administration, Democratic federal lawmakers told attendees at the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Nashville. Among those making the case was Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Nashville’s Rep. Jim Cooper also made an appearance, during which he called Tennessee a “special state” because both of its senators voted in favor of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. That measure, which would have offered a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, was never taken up for a vote on the floor of the House. Read more from the Tennessean.

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Legislative Panel Meets Thursday on Internet Sales Tax

A Tennessee lawmaker says it is unclear what action a legislative panel will take this week on Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposed rule to require out-of-state retailers with no physical presence in the state to collect state and local sales taxes on Internet purchases. “What happens Thursday is anybody’s guess right now,” Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell, R-Riceville, told the Times Free Press. The Department of Revenue’s proposed rule would apply to out-of-state Internet retailers and catalog sellers with sales exceeding $500,000 annually. 

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Democrats Re-elect Harris, Yarbro to Senate Posts

State Sens. Lee Harris, D-Memphis, and Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, were re-elected to leadership positions in the 110th General Assembly, Humphrey on the Hill reports. Harris was re-elected Senate minority leader, while Yarbro was re-elected Democratic Caucus chair. The pair say their party will be more active in "getting the word out” on issues such as health care, outsourcing and public transit issues during the next legislative session.

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ABA Revises ‘Model Business Corporation Act’ Book

The American Bar Association (ABA) Business Law Section has published the 2016 version of the “Model Business Corporation Act,” offering the first complete revision of the book since 1984. The model act is a free-standing business corporation statute that can be enacted in its entirety by a state legislature. It is the basis for business corporation statutes in 32 states and Washington, D.C., and the source for many provisions in the general corporation statutes of other states, according to the section.

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Durham Documents ‘Irretrievable’ after Devices Reset

Tennessee legislative staff have destroyed “files, documents, photographs, emails and other information” that were on computers and tablets used by Jeremy Durham while he was a member of the House of Representatives, the Tennessean reports. The paper learned of the move after it requested information related to Durham’s activities. Connie Ridley, director of legislative administration told the paper that Durham’s electronic devices have been set back “to factory default settings” and all documents are “irretrievable."

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Winton to Lead BlueCross Government Relations

Dakasha Winton has been promoted by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee to the newly created position of chief government relations officer, Chattanoogan.com reports. In this position, Winton will be responsible for leading all government relations efforts in Nashville and Washington, D.C. Prior to the promotion, Winton served as director of state government relations and associate general counsel. 

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Harwell Plans More Changes Following Durham Saga

Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, plans two policy changes directly related to the downfall of lawmaker Jeremy Durham, the Tennessean reports. In a statement Friday, Harwell said she will propose that the House Ethics Committee hear allegations of sexual harassment and then recommend action to the full chamber. Under current rules, the committee may not hear these cases. Harwell also said she would push for changes in the rules to allow the reporting of raw numbers of violations or complaints filed under the House’s discrimination and harassment policy.

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Report: Medical Marijuana Returning to Legislature

A pair of Republican lawmakers will be making another go at legalizing medical marijuana this coming legislative session, Nashville Public Radio reports. Sen. Steve Dickerson, a Nashville doctor, and Rep. Jeremy Faison of East Tennessee plan to unveil details of the legislation this week. The two have argued for several years that marijuana can help people with chronic and terminal conditions manage pain. This past fall, Rep. Faison travelled to Colorado to meet with Tennesseans with chronic pain now living there.

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Sessions Confirmation Hearing Set for January

The U.S. Senate confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-AL, will run for two days starting Jan. 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee announced Friday. Committee Democrats had asked for four days to dig into the background of their colleague, Roll Call reports. Committee Chair Charles E. Grassley cited hearings for previous nominees that lasted one or two days with three to nine outside witnesses each day. Grassley also said that Sessions had completed the committee’s questionnaire and that the 33-page document is available on the committee’s website.

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Congress Renews Civil Rights-Era Cold Case Review

As one of its last acts on Saturday before adjourning the current legislative session, Congress approved and sent to President Barack Obama legislation that would continue reviews of racially motivated killings from the civil rights era that are now considered cold cases. The legislation, passed by voice vote, extends indefinitely a 2007 law that calls for a full accounting of race-based deaths, many of which have been closed for decades. It also extends the cut-off date to include any cases occurring before Dec. 31, 1979. The Associated Press reports that more than 100 cases from the 1960s and earlier have been reviewed so far, with one resulting conviction.

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Nathan Ridley is NBA's New President

Nathan Ridley was elected president of the Nashville Bar Association (NBA) Thursday during the group's annual meeting and banquet at the Music City Center. Erin Palmer Polly is the new president-elect; Robb Bigelow is first vice president; Marnie Huff is second vice president; Stephen Young is treasurer; and Lela Hollabaugh is general counsel. Jocelyn Stevenson, who served as president in the previous bar year, is now immediate past president. Lauren Paxton Roberts is the Young Lawyers Division president. The NBA previously announced the results of contested board elections.

Awards also were presented. The YLD Enterprise Award went to Mollie Gass and Peter Malnchuk. The YLD President's Award was given to Kelly Donley and Lauren Spahn. The Nashville Bar Journal Award was presented to Jim Thomas, Kimberly Faye and Caroline Hudson; the CLE Excellence Award was given to Judges Philip Smith and Phillip Robinson. Pro Bono Awards were given to James A. Beaks and Waller LLP. And the John C. Tune Public Service Award went to Bill Harbison and Abby Rubenfeld.

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Task Force Suggests 6 Initial Juvenile Reforms

The state Juvenile Justice Task Force has come up with six initial and tentative recommendations to help rehabilitate juvenile offenders, Fox Chattanooga reports. The list, provided by Senate Majority Leader and task force Chair Mark Norris, calls for (1) reviewing the structure of the current juvenile justice system; (2) ordering treatment instead of jail time for some offenders; (3) collecting data on juvenile crime to determine trends; (4) creating a special group to review juvenile crime data; (5) exploring how probation works; and (6) encouraging partnerships between juvenile courts and schools.

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Trump to Tap Tennessee Fast Food CEO for Labor Secretary

President-elect Donald Trump is expected to nominate restaurant chain executive Andy Puzder to be Labor Secretary, the Tennessean reports. Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, which owns fast food restaurants Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, worked as a Trump campaign adviser and is a major critic of what he calls unnecessary federal regulations. A second story highlights five things to know about Puzder, who worked as a corporate lawyer before making his name as a turnaround specialist. Puzder recently relocated to the Nashville area and is in the process of moving the company’s headquarters to Williamson County.

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Stand for Children, Candidates Cleared of Wrongdoing

Stand for Children and four pro-charter school candidates have been cleared of all alleged campaign finance violations, the Tennessean reports. Tennessee Registry of Election Finance board members said yesterday they did not see enough evidence to show there was illegal coordination between Stand for Children and the Nashville-area candidates, voting unanimously to dismiss the case. The complaint had alleged illegal coordination between the organization and the candidates – Miranda Christy, Thom Druffel, Jane Grimes Meneely and Jackson Miller.

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New Information Delays Durham Probe

Investigators will not reveal the findings of a probe into former state representative Jeremy Durham’s campaign finances until February, because “new information” is requiring additional investigation. Drew Rawlins, executive director of the state Registry of Election Finance, said Wednesday the agency has collected all the materials it needs pertaining to Durham’s finances, but it will take more time than expected to conclude the inquiry. Tom Lawless, chairman of the registry, characterized the new information as troublesome. Durham has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The Tennessean has more.

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California Set to Get its 1st Latino AG

California Gov. Jerry Brown has picked U.S. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, to be the state’s next attorney general, the Los Angeles Times reports. If confirmed by both houses of the state legislature, Becerra would be the state’s first Latino attorney general and would succeed Kamala Harris, who was elected to the U.S. Senate. Becerra, 58, has served 12 terms in Congress. He previously worked in the civil division of the state attorney general’s office.

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