News

Judges Consider Social Media Access in UT Rape Case

A three-judge panel of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals heard arguments today on whether former University of Tennessee football players A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams can use subpoenas to force their accuser to turn over social media posts, messages and texts. The pair are accused of raping a female athlete during a post-football game party in 2014. They insist the encounter was consensual. Police did not try to get the information and prosecutors have been trying to block  defense access it to, Knoxnews reports. Neither man will be tried until the social media issues are decided, the newspaper says.

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Court Upholds Conviction for Christian-Newsom Murders

The Tennessee Supreme Court today affirmed the convictions and death sentences imposed on Lemaricus Devall Davidson for the 2007 kidnapping, rape and murder of Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom. In 2009, a Knox County jury convicted Davidson on multiple counts and imposed two death sentences. In 2015, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the jury’s actions. During Supreme Court review, Davidson raised a number of issues, including the legitimacy of an unsigned search warrant. The court agreed that the search warrant was invalid but applied its newly adopted good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule to validate the evidence that led to the convictions. Read more from the court.

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Lawyer Asks Court to Force Action on Garland Nomination

A lawyer from New Mexico is mounting a longshot challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking it to order the Senate to consider the high court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, WRCB-TV reports. Lawyer Steven Michel argues that senators’ obstruction of President Barack Obama’s nomination violates his rights as a voter under the provision of the Constitution that provides for popular election of senators. Lower courts have dismissed the case, which was filed this past summer. The vacancy, created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, has remained unfilled for almost 10 months.

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Breyer Renews Call for Death Penalty Review

Returning to a subject he addressed last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer on Monday said death sentences are arbitrary and their constitutionality should be examined. In a dissent filed in one of three death penalty cases the court chose not to hear, Breyer said the cases involved “especially cruel and unusual circumstances.” He also argued that individuals who are executed are not the “worst of the worst” but rather are “chosen at random” perhaps based on geography, views of individual prosecutors or race. The ABA Journal looks at the three cases denied by the court.

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Court Rejects Challenges to NFL Concussion Settlement

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday rejected the final two challenges to an estimated $1 billion settlement between the NFL and more than 20,000 former players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions. Players who already have been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or dementia now could begin receiving payments in 90 to 120 days, CBS News reports. The remaining lawsuits had accused the league of hiding what it knew about concussion risks but the NFL denied those claims. WREG TV has the story.

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Internet Tax Case Could Change Online Shopping

States can require Internet retailers to tell customers how much they owe in sales taxes thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision yesterday that could help officials recoup billions of dollars lost to online retailers. The court declined to hear a challenge to a Colorado law requiring online sellers to notify customers and the state how much they owe in taxes. At least three other states – Louisiana, Oklahoma and Vermont – have passed similar laws. Though the court did not rule on the merits of the case, states are likely to see the move “as a green light to step up collection efforts,” WRCB TV reports

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Court Plans SCALES Event for 2017

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hold its SCALES program next November at Lane College in Jackson. The program, which is designed to educate high school students about the judicial branch of government, has served more than 25,000 students from more than 460 high schools across the state. Lane College, founded in 1882 by one of the nation’s early African American church denominations, is a small, private, co-educational institution that provides a liberal arts curriculum.

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Alabama Executes Man Who Had Challenged State Law

Alabama inmate Ronald B. Smith was put to death by lethal injection yesterday after a deadlocked U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay his execution, the New York Times reports. Smith had been sentenced to death by a judge despite a jury’s recommendation of life without parole. He had challenged Alabama’s death penalty system, the only one in the nation that allows such judicial overrides. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s capital sentencing system, which also allowed judicial overrides of jury-recommended life sentences. The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in September that state laws were sufficiently different from Florida’s to be upheld.

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Portrait Unveiling Set for Justice Wade

The official portrait of former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary Wade will be unveiled Dec. 19 at 4 p.m. in the courtroom of the Knoxville Supreme Court. Members of the bench and bar are invited to attend. A reception will follow, according to the court.

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AOC Director Speaks to Leadership Nashville

Deborah Taylor Tate, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, recently spoke to Leadership Nashville’s 2016 class at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. Tate, a graduate of the program, shared insights from her own government service as well as the work of the Tennessee court system, including access to justice efforts and new innovations such as recovery courts, a human trafficking court and a "toddler court" designed to reduce child fatalities. 

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Court Tackles Vehicular Homicides, Malpractice, Liquor Store Fees

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear four East Tennessee cases, including a Claiborne County vehicular homicide case in which a lower appellate court set the admittedly guilty driver free. Another vehicular homicide case looks at whether a police officer should have sought a warrant before seeking a hospital blood draw from the defendant. The third case looks at whether a legal malpractice claim should have been dismissed for being filed too long after the alleged wrongdoing. And the fourth case explores whether the city of Morristown overcharged liquor stores with fees totaling a half-million dollars. Knoxnews reviews each case.

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AOC Names New Communications Director

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) announced today that Jill G. Frost has joined its office as director of communications. Frost, a licensed Tennessee attorney, also has public relations and communications experience, including stints with the American Red Cross and the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation. Frost earned her law degree from Belmont University College of Law. She replaces Michele Wojciechowski, who recently was named director of communications for the Nashville School of Law.

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TBA Activates Disaster Legal Assistance for Wildfires

In response to the wildfire disasters in Gatlinburg and Sevier County, the TBA is partnering with the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and the Supreme Court's Access to Justice Commission to help those affected with their legal needs. Attorneys who want to help can access training resources and other materials on the TBA's Disaster Legal Assistance page. Legal clinics and outreach related to losses from the fires are anticipated and volunteers will be needed. For more information or to volunteer in the area, contact Kathryn Ellis at Legal Aid of East Tennessee. Those who are not in the area but still want to help can volunteer to answer online questions at TN Free Legal Answers or respond to calls on the HELP4TN helpline. The TBA's Young Lawyers Division Disaster Relief Committee has also been activated and will be assisting with volunteer recruitment and coordination efforts. To volunteer, complete the Disaster Legal Assistance Volunteer Form. If you know someone in need of legal assistance, please have them call the legal helpline at 844-HELP4TN, or visit help4tn.org.

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Tennessee Attorneys Admitted to Practice Before Supreme Court at TBA Academy

A group of attorneys from across Tennessee were sworn in to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court today as part of the 33rd Annual TBA Academy. Along with the admissions ceremony, the attorneys took part in other networking and educational activities at the Supreme Court and on Capitol Hill. One highlight of this year's event was when TBA President Jason Long made the motion for admission of his wife, Carol Anne Long.

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Justices Appear Sympathetic to Intellectual Disability Issues

A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared ready to side with a man sentenced to death for a 1980 Houston murder who is challenging how Texas gauges whether a defendant has intellectual disabilities that would preclude execution, Reuters reports. The court ruled in 2002 that execution of the intellectually disabled violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. At issue in this case is whether Texas is using an obsolete standard to assess whether the defendant is intellectually disabled.

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Justices Rule against Politician in Bribery Case

The U.S. Supreme Court today issued its first ruling of the October term, deciding unanimously against a Puerto Rican politician who had sought to avoid a second trial on corruption charges after his original conviction was tossed out. The decision was a setback to Hector Martinez Maldonado, who served in Puerto Rico’s Senate from 2005 until his 2011 conviction, as well as businessman Juan Bravo Fernandez, the former president of a private security company. Prosecutors have argued that Fernandez sought to bribe Maldonado to win passage of legislation that would benefit his business. Reuters has more on the case.

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Judge Garland Heading Back to Old Job

Judge Merrick Garland will soon put on his black judicial robe for the first time in months as he goes back to his old job as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Garland now joins a small group of people nominated but not confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Associated Press reports. Garland stopped hearing cases after being nominated by President Obama in March to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. The Paris Post-Intelligencer has the story.

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Court: School Zone Law Does Not Apply to Facilitating Sale of Drugs

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that the Drug-Free School Zone Act does not apply when a defendant is convicted of “facilitation of possession” in a school zone, overturning both the trial court and appellate court decisions in the case of Stanley Bernard Gibson, who had received a sentencing enhancement based on the proximity of his crime to a school. In a unanimous opinion, the court found that the state drug-free school zone law specifically lists the offenses to which it applies, and facilitation is not among them. They affirmed the underlying conviction but remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.

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Newsom Named Special Counsel in AG’s Memphis Office

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III has named James R. Newsom III as special counsel and lead attorney in the attorney general’s Memphis regional office. In his new role, Newsom will assist on a broad range of cases. Newsom previously served as chancellor in the 30th Judicial District, special master for the Chancery Court and in private practice for more than 30 years with Harris, Shelton, Hanover Walsh and its predecessor firm, Hanover, Walsh, Jalenak & Blair. He was appointed to the bench in 2015 by Gov. Bill Haslam. A native of Memphis, Newsom received his bachelor’s degree from Rhodes College in 1976 and law degree from Vanderbilt Law School in 1979.

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Lipscomb Renames Institute to Honor Fred Gray

Lipscomb University celebrated the renaming of its Institute for Law, Justice & Society in honor of civil rights attorney Fred Gray at a gala dinner Saturday in Nashville. Gray argued and won landmark civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court four times before he was 30 and represented clients like Rosa Parks, Claudette Colvin, John Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr. and the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Among those reflecting on Gray's legacy at the event were Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Richard Dinkins, Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, Meharry Medical College President James E.K. Hildreth and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville. See photos from the event.

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Is Justice Kennedy About to Retire?

Those who suggest that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy may be getting ready to retire point to several recent developments: Kennedy has scheduled his next clerkship reunion for 2017, one year shy of the five-year cycle he typically has followed; he did not teach abroad this summer, suggesting he may be winding down his schedule; and he has hired just one law clerk for the 2017 term. But the court’s spokeswoman says Kennedy is in the process of hiring more clerks and has plans to return to Salzburg in 2017. As for the timing of the reunion, he wanted to hold it the year he turned 80, she says. The ABA Journal has the story.

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Trump’s Supreme Court List Reflects ‘Revolt against Elites’

When Donald J. Trump issued his list of 21 potential nominees to the Supreme Court in September, he made a vow. “This list is definitive,” he said, “and I will choose only from it in picking future justices of the Supreme Court.” According to the New York Times, the list manages “to reassure the conservative legal establishment and to represent a rebellion against it.” But the major theme, the paper argues, is that Trump’s picks primarily went to law schools other than Harvard or Yale and reside in the country’s heartland rather than the coasts. The list, like his campaign, is a “revolt against the elites,” the paper concludes.

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Did Appeals Court Call for Reconsideration of Cowan Rule?

Since the Tennessee Supreme Court found that a final will cannot be contested by an individual who was left out of a previous will, the so called 1906 “Cowan Rule” has been creating heartburn for judges, the Times Free Press reports. The most recent test came in the case of J. Don Brock. At the trial court level, the judge “reluctantly dismissed” the claims of Brock’s children because they were cut out of a previous version. The appeals court upheld the decision but in a rare move, may have encouraged the state Supreme Court to re-examine the ruling and its practical application. Attorneys for the estate, however, say the appeals court did not ask for reconsideration but merely pointed out that the rule could be used to hide fraud. Read it here.

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Court Issues Order Amending TCCA Rule 7

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals issued an order today amending Rule 7 of its rules. The order deletes Rule 7 in its entirety and substitutes the following language: “Motions in this Court shall be in conformity with Rule 22, Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure. The proponent of a motion is not required to submit a proposed order.” Get the order here.

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AG's Office Clarifies Testimony to 6th Circuit Court of Appeals

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III released a statement about a letter his office sent to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the matter of Andrew Thomas v. Bruce Westbrooks, a death penalty case. The letter from Assistant Attorney General Michael M. Stall seeks to clarify his testimony before the court this month about a $750 payment made to a witness in a federal case involving Andrew Thomas, which occured three years prior to the state case. The letter and today's statement emphasizes that “the payment … was made by the federal government without the knowledge of or involvement by District Attorney General Amy Weirich” and “there has been no finding whatsoever that state prosecutors in this case had actual knowledge of the payment at the time of the state trial.” Read the letter or this explanation from the AG's office.

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