News

Harwell Asks Leaders to Open Secret 'Pre-Meetings'

Many Tennessee House committees routinely go behind closed doors first for unannounced "pre-meetings" where they discuss pending bills before they come up in committees and subcommittees, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. Advocates of open government as well as some legislators and lobbyists have questioned the process, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, is now asking  House  leaders to end the practice, The Tennessean reports.

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5 Issues to Watch This Week in General Assembly

As the General Assembly inches toward its expected end in late April, more potentially controversial bills are on committee agendas, the Tennessean reports. The list includes legalization of cannabis oil and medical marijuana, longevity pay and minimum wage, motorcycle helmet restrictions and drinking in cars.

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Campaign Report: Dark Money Up, Direct Donations Down

Reports released recently by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance show that political action committees spent more than $10 million to influence elections in the state last year. The Knoxville News Sentinel cited the data in reporting that direct donations decreased from the 2012 election year while so-called independent expenditures increased. The Tennessee Forum had the most independent expenditures, including spending $668,686 to attack three state Supreme Court justices. Almost all of its money came from a PAC set up by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey operating under the name of RAAMPAC.

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Senate Directs Local Law Enforcement to Ban Racial Profiling

The Tennessee Senate approved a bill Monday that requires local law enforcement agencies to enact policies prohibiting racial profiling, Knoxnews reports. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, sponsored the bill and said it would require local agencies to adopt policies by Jan. 1, 2016. A bill passed several years ago encouraged adoption of such policies but only 37 agencies have taken action thus far. The new bill is awaiting committee review in the House.

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NAACP Embarks on 'Journey for Justice'

The Tennessee NAACP State Conference will hold its 15th Annual Legislative Day on the Hill in Nashville next Tuesday. The group hopes to engage state lawmakers on issues such as Medicaid expansion, increasing the minimum wage, expanding voting rights and ensuring that Tennessee enacts a new ban on racial profiling. The event is part of a month-long campaign by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP called “Journey for Justice.” The Chattanoogan has more.

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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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