News

Appeals Court Upholds City’s Right to Cut COLAs

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday affirmed a district court ruling dismissing a lawsuit filed against the city of Chattanooga by retired firefighters and police officers over reforms to their pension plans, the Times Free Press reports. U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier had granted the city’s motion for summary judgment agreeing that cost-of-living adjustments did not constitute a vested right or contract between the city and its employees. The appellate panel found that, “The retirees do not have a contractual right to a fixed three-percent COLA, because the City Code does not bind the fund to the fixed COLA.”

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Court’s First Live Webcast Honors Scalia

The U.S. Supreme Court today live-streamed a memorial honoring the late Justice Antonin Scalia. It was the court’s first-ever live video webcast, the ABA Journal reports. Former Scalia law clerk Paul Cappucio, executive vice president and general counsel of Time Warner, led the event. Gabe Roth with Fix the Court, which has called for greater court transparency, said the decision to webcast the event was “a shock, though a much appreciated one.” A replay is available on the court’s website.

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U.S. Attorney Stanton Promotes Lawyers, Staff

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton has promoted three attorneys and two staff members in his West Tennessee offices. In the Memphis office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carroll Andre was named criminal division chief, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keenan Carter was named deputy civil chief, staff member Marian Peete was promoted to legal supervisory assistant and LaRita Bearden was named a victim witness specialist. In the Jackson office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Boswell was named chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. The Jackson Sun has more on each of these promotions.

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Harr Sworn in as Eastern District U.S. Attorney

Nancy Stallard Harr was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee by Chief District Court Judge Thomas Varlan on Friday, Chattanoogan.com reports. The ceremony took place at the James H. Quillen Federal Courthouse in Greeneville. Harr had been serving as interim U.S. attorney since the retirement of William C. Killian in 2015. Harr is a former prosecutor with the Second Judicial District Attorney’s office in Blountville. She joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1995 in Knoxville and was named supervisor of the Greeneville branch office in 2001.

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Concerns Grow over Comey's Letter to Congress

Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is now dean of the Belmont College of Law, said he was “surprised and a little bit perplexed” by FBI Director James Comey’s decision to discuss an investigation of emails discovered on former Rep. Anthony Weiner's laptop to see if they are related to the bureau's investigation of Clinton's private email server just days before the presidential election. “It is not consistent with [Justice Department] protocol,” he tells the Tennessean. In addition, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee called Comey’s disclosure “not fair to Congress, the American people or Secretary [Hillary] Clinton” because of its vagueness. He has asked Comey to answer a number of questions by Friday, according to WDEF. In other news, a bipartisan group of former state attorneys general (including John Knox Walkup, who served as Tennessee attorney general from 1997 to 1999) have signed a letter calling the congressional notification “a serious mistake," and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has called on Comey to resign. WCYB has that story.

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Did Government Err in Oregon Occupation Case?

Seven defendants were caught on camera taking over and occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge, many with guns, yet last week a jury acquitted all of them on weapons charges and conspiracy to intimidate federal workers. Many in the legal profession are wondering how that happened, Today's General Counsel reports. One juror offered his thoughts to the Oregonian: “All 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the failure of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.” An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests the verdict should remind the U.S. Justice Department that a case, and a conspiracy, that might seem obvious to a prosecutor, is not necessarily obvious to a jury.

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Obama Commutes 98 Drug-related Sentences

President Barack Obama has commuted 98 more sentences of federal prisoners, the White House announced yesterday. According to the ABA Journal, all 98 recipients had been sentenced for drug crimes, with some also sentenced for related offenses such as firearms possession and money laundering. Of the group, 42 had been sentenced to life in prison. The move comes just a few weeks after Obama commuted 102 sentences, bringing his total to 200 commutations for the month and 872 for his entire presidency – more than those of his 11 predecessors combined, the White House said.

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State to Share in $41M Fuel Economy Settlement

Tennessee will receive more than $965,000 as part of a $41.2 million multi-state settlement with Hyundai and Kia, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III announced today. The agreement resolves claims that the automakers misrepresented mileage and fuel economy ratings for some 2011, 2012 and 2013 model vehicles. The settlement, reached between attorneys general in 33 states and the District of Columbia and the Hyundai Motor Company, Hyundai Motor America, Kia Motors Corporation and Kia Motors America, concludes a multi-state investigation into the fuel economy estimates during a period of especially high gasoline prices.

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Court to Hear Transgender Bathroom Appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to take up the case of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who challenged a Virginia school district policy that prevented him from using the boys’ restroom at his high school. The case will test the Obama administration’s directive that schools must let transgender students use bathrooms that align with their gender identity, the Washington Post reports. In August, the justices put on hold a lower court ruling that had sided with Grimm, while they decided whether to hear the case. The stay will remain in effect until the court rules on the merits.

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Democrats Blast Calls to Block Clinton Court Picks

Three U.S. senators have mentioned the possibility of blocking any Supreme Court candidate nominated by Hillary Clinton if she were to become president. The comments from Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have angered the White House and Senate Democrats, Roll Call reports. Senate Judiciary ranking Democrat Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said such a move would amount to a “piecemeal evisceration of the Constitution.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said such calls threaten “the same kind of dysfunction that has infected Washington for the last six years.”

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6th Circuit to Hold Session at Memphis Law

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals will hold oral arguments in the historic courtroom at the University of Memphis School of Law Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. The panel, consisting of Senior Judge Gilbert S. Merritt, Senior Judge Eugene E. Siler Jr. and Memphis Law alumna Judge Bernice B. Donald, will hear arguments in the death penalty case of Andrew Thomas Jr. v. Bruce Westbrooks. Following oral arguments, attorneys in the case will conduct a post-argument debriefing and the judges have agreed to stay for a reception in the school’s Scenic Reading Room.

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Justice Thomas: Confirmation Process is ‘Broken’

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas says the current Supreme Court confirmation process is an example of how the nation’s capital is “broken in some ways.” Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, Thomas reflected on his 25 years as a justice, including his own bruising confirmation process and his fondness for Justice Antonin Scalia. Commenting on the state of discourse in America today, he said, “I think we have decided that rather than confront disagreements, we’ll just simply annihilate the person who disagrees with me. I don't think that’s going to work in a republic, in a civil society.” Yahoo has the Associated Press story.

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Training Offered to Help Lawyers Help Veterans

The University of Tennessee College of Law will hold a two-hour training session on Nov. 11 from 2 to 4 p.m. EST for those interested in learning more about volunteering at a Project Salute event or assisting veterans with legal issues in any setting. A “meet and greet” will follow the program. Register online.

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U.S. Attorneys Outline Plans for Election Complaints

Following news yesterday on how the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville will handle election-related fraud and abuse complaints, federal prosecutors in Memphis and Knoxville have made similar announcements. In Memphis, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reagan M. Taylor will lead the Election Day effort. She can be reached at 901-544-4231. The Memphis FBI field office also will be open and can be reached at 901-747-4300. In the Eastern District, Assistant U.S. Attorney Perry H. Piper will take the lead. He can be reached at 423-385-1332. The Knoxville FBI field office also can be reached at 865-544-0751. Anyone with complaints about possible violations of federal voting rights law may also contact the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division directly by calling 800-253-3931, emailing voting.section@usdoj.gov or filling out an online complaint form.

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Prosecutor Outlines Process for Voter Complaints

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nashville has announced plans for handling complaints of election fraud and voting rights abuses during the upcoming general election, Williamson Source reports. U.S. Attorney David Rivera has designated Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steve Jordan and Henry Leventis to lead local efforts in connection with the Justice Department’s nationwide Election Day Program. Members of the public can report violations to them by calling 615-289-8574. Local FBI agents also will be on hand on Election Day and can be reached at 615-232-7500. Complaints about possible violations of federal voting rights laws can be made directly to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., by calling 800-253-3931, emailing voting.section@usdoj.gov or filling out an online complaint form.

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Murfreesboro Lawyer Charged with Insider Trading

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has charged Murfreesboro lawyer and former Pinnacle Financial Partners board member James C. Cope with insider trading related to the bank’s merger with Avenue Financial Holdings the Tennessean reports. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee also filed a parallel criminal case according to the SEC. Federal officials say Cope learned confidential details about the planned merger and then purchased 10,000 shares of Avenue stock prior to the public announcement, making more than $56,000. Cope resigned from Pinnacle’s board in April. He is a partner at Cope, Hudson, Reed & McCreary.

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Grassley: GOP Has Responsibility to Consider Court Nominees

Republicans “can’t just simply stonewall” nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court even if the president making that choice is Democrat Hillary Clinton, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley said Tuesday. The senator, who is chair of the Judiciary Committee, was responding to comments from fellow Republican Sen. John McCain that Republicans would unite against any nominee Clinton puts forward if she becomes president. “I think we have a responsibility to very definitely vet…whoever nominee that person puts forward. We have the same responsibility for [Donald] Trump,” Grassley said. WRCB-TV has the Associated Press story.

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Federal Law Forum Sessions Now Live

Sessions from the TBA’s recent federal law forum are now available online. A session on expert disclosures features Memphis lawyer Frank Day of Ford Harrison and focuses on using the rule to gain an advantage in litigation, while a second session with arbitrator and mediator Mark Travis focuses on practice tips for those interested in alternative dispute resolution.

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Some VW Owners Slam Emissions Deal

Several angry Volkswagen owners told a federal judge yesterday that a proposed $10 billion settlement does not adequately compensate them for the automaker’s emissions cheating scandal. One owner, for example, demanded the full purchase price of his car as well as part of his registration fee, the Associated Press reports. The settlement calls for the car maker to spend up to $10 billion to buy back or repair about 475,000 Volkswagens and Audi vehicles with 2-liter diesel engines and pay owners an additional $5,100 to $10,000 each. The deal also requires the company to pay $4.7 billion for environmental mitigation and to promote zero-emissions vehicles. The Memphis Daily News has the story.

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Federal Agency Extends Contract with CCA

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has extended its contract with Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) for the management of a 2,400-bed detention facility in Texas, the Nashville Business Journal reports. The contract, which was criticized by the Washington Post in August, now runs through September 2021. In reviewing the terms of the deal, the Post found that a public-bidding process was not held and the payment structure is more generous than industry norms. Just days after the Post report, the Department of Justice said it would end the use of private prisons.

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Elder Law Programs Now Online

If you missed the TBA's annual Elder Law forum, the courses are now available online. Sessions focused on ABLE TN (a program that helps disabled individuals save for their health care), federal issues related to elder law, emergency conservatorships and a panel addressing TennCare. Watch one or all four!

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Knoxville Judge Hits FBI Tactics in Porn Case

Senior U.S. District Judge Leon Jordan of Knoxville has joined at least six other federal judges in opposing the FBI’s tactics in a child pornography sting that allegedly violated the rights of more than 180 suspects, including a Tennessee funeral director. Jordan ruled that the FBI violated both the U.S. Constitution and federal rules of criminal procedure in its efforts to target suspects because it relied on a Virginia magistrate judge’s search warrant to launch the nationwide initiative. However, unlike other judges, Jordan is allowing the government to use the results of the illegal search in the Tennessee case under the so-called federal good-faith exception, according to Knoxnews.

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Senate Hires Michigan Legal Group for Refugee Lawsuit

The Tennessee Senate has hired the conservative Christian Thomas More Law Center to represent it in a federal lawsuit attempting to block refugee resettlement in the state after state Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III declined to take the case. The House is likely to approve the hire, but nothing has been formalized yet, the Tennessean reports. The Michigan-based legal group will represent the state for free in the nation’s first lawsuit to challenge the federal government for noncompliance with the Refugee Act of 1980 based on the 10th Amendment. The move comes after lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a resolution earlier this year in support of a lawsuit.

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Underground Railroad Center to Honor Obergefell

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to legalization of same-sex marriage across the county, will be honored with an award given to those that better their communities. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati will present him its Everyday Freedom Hero Award at a ceremony on Oct. 22. The center’s president has praised Obergefell as “a champion of civil rights.” The Greeneville Sun has the Associated Press story.

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Investiture Ceremony Set for Newbern, Frensley

Alistair E. Newbern and Jeffery S. Frensley will take the oath of office as U.S. Magistrate Judges for the Middle District of Tennessee during a Joint Investiture Ceremony, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. in the Ceremonial Courtroom of the United States District Court, 801 Broadway, Room 874 in Nashville. A reception will follow.

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