Monthly Archives: June 2020

Lee extends state of emergency until Aug. 29

Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a press conference on Tennessee’s coronavirus response in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is extending Tennessee’s state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic until Aug. 29.

Here’s the full release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee Governor Bill Lee today signed Executive Order No. 50 to extend the State of Emergency related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to August 29, 2020. The order allows the continued suspension of various laws and regulations and other measures in these orders to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19 through regulatory flexibility, promoting social distancing and avoidance of large gatherings, and protecting vulnerable populations. 

Gov. Lee also signed Executive Order Nos. 51 and 52, which extend provisions that allow for electronic government meetings subject to transparency safeguards and remote notarization and witnessing of documents, respectively, to August 29, 2020.

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Abortion law must take effect before judge considers injunction

The Tennessee Senate meets on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell says he won’t decide about whether to impose an emergency injunction on sweeping abortion restrictions passed by the General Assembly until Gov. Bill Lee signs the legislation into law.

Despite earlier assurances that the Senate wouldn’t take up the abortion bill in its return from a 75-day coronavirus hiatus, the chamber abruptly brought the measure up for a vote after midnight on the last night of the session. It passed 23-5 in the Senate and 70-20 in House.

Neither House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) nor Senate Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) has yet signed the engrossed bill. Once that occurs, the governor has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign,  veto, or allow the bill to become law without his signature. Lee, who originally proposed the measure, is expected to sign the bill quickly once it reaches his desk.

The bill seeks to enact a nearly universal abortion ban once a fetal heartbeat is detected. If successfully challenged in court, the bill seeks to automatically impose successive abortion bans eight, 10, 12, 15, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24 weeks of gestation.

Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block the law the same day the bill gained final approval in the General Assembly.

The plaintiffs asked Judge Campbell to take up their motion for an emergency temporary restraining order without waiting for the state to file its response, which is due by Friday. Campbell said he won’t rule on the injunction until the bill has been signed into law and that he will consider the state’s response if it is filed by the time the governor puts his signature on the bill.

Trump taps Haslam as Wilson Center chair

Then-Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at an event at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville on Aug. 28, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

President Donald Trump is appointing former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam as the chairman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center was founded in 1968 and describes itself as “the nation’s key non-partisan policy forum for tackling global issues through independent research and open dialogue to inform actionable ideas for the policy community.”

Haslam served as governor from 2011 to 2019.

Wilson Center board members are appointed to six-year terms. Haslam will succeed fellow former Republican Gov. Scott Walker as chair.

Walker took over following the death of businessman and GOP fundraiser Fred Malek last year. Malek was the finance chair of the Republican Governors Association from 2008 until his death. Haslam was elected chairman of the RGA in 2015 and 2018.

Supreme Court turns down state’s effort to halt expanded absentee voting amid pandemic

The Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to immediately halt a judge’s order that the state must allow any voters concerned about being infected by COVID-19 to cast their ballots by mail. But the state’s highest court did agree to directly take up the full legal challenge of the ruling, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle earlier this month found the state’s position that fear of coronavirus infection was not a sufficient reason to request an absentee ballot presented an “unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”

When state election officials responded by creating a new category on the application form for those worried about COVID-19 rather than have it covered by the existing medical exception, Lyle called out the state for failing to adhere to her original order.

“Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said in a recent hearing.

While the expedited appeal will speed up the state’s legal challenge, it appears unlikely the high court will decide the case before the Aug. 6 primary. Absentee ballots are already being sent out, and in-person early voting begins on July 17.

Current, former Chattanooga congressmen make competing U.S. Senate endorsements

A Chattanooga congressman and his predecessor are making competing endorsements in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Former Rep. Zach Wamp is giving the nod to Vanderbilt surgeon Manny Sethi, while current Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is getting behind Bill Hagerty.

Wamp joined fellow former Rep. Ed Bryant (R-Jackson) in endorsing Sethi:

Fleischmann won the 3rd Congressional District seat when Wamp gave it up to run for governor in 2010. Wamp had first been elected to the seat in 1994.

Wamp endorsed Bill Lee in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, giving a boost to the Franklin businessman’s campaing. There was a personal backstory to that endorsement, as political operative Chip Saltsman was advising rival Republican Randy Boyd’s campaign. Saltsman had also run Fleischmann’s successful campaigns against Weston Wamp, the congressman’s son, in 2012 and 2014.

Tennessee abortion law to be challenged before Trump-appointed judge

The House meets at the state Capitol in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

When Tennessee Republican lawmakers passed a sweeping abortion ban last week, it was the the expressed hope the measure could be used to challenge precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. A legal challenge filed in federal court in Nashville this week provides an early test as the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Chip Campbell, whom President Donald Trump appointed to the bench in 2017.

Campbell was a business litigator with Frost Brown Todd before becoming a judge. He is the son of Republican National Committee member Beth Campbell and husband of Anastasia Campbell, the co-director of the General Assembly’s office of legal services.

Unlike some of Trump’s more controversial nominees, Campbell received a “Well Qualified” rating from the American Bar Association. The Senate voted 97-0 to confirm Campbell in January 2018.

PAC funded by Sethi finance chairman hits Hagerty as ‘another liberal’

A political action committee calling itself the Conservative Outsiders’ PAC is running a series of videos attacking Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bill Hagerty as having “extreme ties to the most liberal elements of the Republican party,” ranging from Mitt Romney to Lamar Alexander.

“Why would we want another liberal like Bill Hagerty representing Tennessee,” the narrator says in the spot.

According to Federal Election Commission filings, the PAC has received only one donation: $100,000 from David Ingram, rival Republican candidate Manny Sethi’s state finance chairman.

Ingram served as treasurer to former House Speaker Beth Harwell’s gubernatorial in 2018 and as finance chairman for 2002 Republican gubernatorial nominee Van Hilleary’s campaign. His brother John, the billionaire chairman of Ingram Industries, has given the maximum personal donation of $5,600 to Hagerty. John Ingram is the owner of the Major League Soccer franchise Hagerty helped land in Nashville.

Here’s what the Hagerty campaign had to say in response:

Bill Hagerty has earned President Trump’s ‘complete and total’ endorsement, because the President knows he will be ‘strong on crime, borders and our Second Amendment.’ President Trump trusts Bill and personally asked him to serve on the American Revival Group where he is working to hold China accountable for the Wuhan virus and get our economy going again.

War of words erupts over failure to pass bill to ban COVID-19 lawsuits

Everyone thought the deal was done. But then it wasn’t. The General Assembly adjourned in the predawn hours of Friday without passing either a bill to provide businesses immunity from most COVID-19 lawsuits or another measure to set insurance reimbursement standards for telemedicine appointments.

That’s when a war of words began to erupt between the Republican leaders of both chambers. Senate Speaker Randy McNally blamed House Majority Leader William Lamberth and House Judiciary Chairman Michael Curcio for torpedoing the lawsuit bill.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton, normally a McNally ally, shot back that “finger pointing on social media … is not a productive way to arrive at an effective solution.”

Talk immediately turned to whether Gov. Bill Lee might call a special session to try to fix the damage. But first, the two chambers would have to come together on an agreement — something that has proven elusive so far.

The sticking point over the lawsuit liability has been over whether it be backdated to the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate has argued it should, while the House has pointed out that retroactive legislation is banned by the state constitution. Business interests appeared to have been willing to back off the retroactive language in the interest of getting at least something passed this session, but those discussions evaporated after the word was put out the two chambers had agreed to pass the original forms of both the liability and telemedicine bills.

It turned out rank-and-file members of the House weren’t on board with such an arrangement. The vote to adopt the Senate version including the retroactive language was 46-36. It takes 50 votes for bills to be approved in the House.

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It’s over: Lawmakers adjourn after strangely frantic end of session

The state Capitol was closed to visitors on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A bizarre legislative session came to a close in the early hours of Friday. A last-minute deal to pass a sweeping  abortion ban caused the House and Senate to drop disagreements over the budget and wrap up their businesses.

The surprise nature of the decision to take up the bill after midnight (and behind closed doors) in the Senate, where leaders had earlier declared  it would not be taken up this year, is only likely to fuel legal questions about the measure.

 

Senate dangles approval of abortion bill to get House to back down on budget

The Senate meets in Nashville on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Sweeping legislation aimed at banning most abortions in Tennessee is suddenly back in play as the House and Senate look to break an impasse and adjourn the session for the year.

The Senate had included the abortion legislation among an array of bills it didn’t plan to take up for not being related to the COVID-19 pandemic or being time-sensitive. That appears on the verge of changing late Thursday, as the Senate is expected to suspend its rules and hold vote on the bill. In return, the House is expected to relent on many of the changes it sought to make to the budget proposal approved by the upper chamber.

The bill was first introduced at the behest of Gov. Bill Lee.  It is widely expected to be challenged in court, as similar laws in other states have. Supporters say they hope a legal challenge could reach the U.S. Supreme Court and cause the Roe v. Wade decision to be overturned.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

Lee’s bill deploys a “laddered” approach, offering various restrictions in hopes that if courts reject the strictest one, justices will consider the next one down the list and so forth, possibly accepting one of them.

Its strictest provision seeks to ban all abortions except to save the life of a woman or in cases of “serious risk” of substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function upon detection of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin. The hormone, produced by cells growing around a fetus, is detectable as early as 11 days after a woman becomes pregnant via a blood test and from 12-14 days by a urine test.

There are also “fetal heartbeat” provisions in the bill that bar abortion procedures upon detection of a fetus’ heart beat, as early as five-and-a-half to six weeks after gestation.