Monthly Archives: March 2021

Bid to oust judge over absentee voting ruling killed in House

Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), right, gestures at Rep. Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) in Nashville on July 24, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The House Civil Justice Subcommittee has killed a resolution calling for the ouster of Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle for a ruling expanding access to absentee voting last summer.

The measure sponsored by Rep. Tim Rudd failed on a voice vote. The question was called on the measure despite the Murfreesboro Republican saying he wanted to roll the bill until next week. Rudd confronted Chair Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) after the meeting.

“You’re a disgrace!” Rudd told Farmer, bumping into a reporter standing between the two lawmakers.

The measure’s failure comes as a bit of a surprise as 67 Republicans were listed as co-sponsors. But the subcommittee included two Republicans members hadn’t signed on — Michael Curcio of Dickson and Johnny Garrett of Goodlettsville — and two Democrats who opposed the measure, Antonio Parkinson of Memphis and John Ray Clemmons of Nashville.

Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-Paris) demanded a roll call vote, but his motion didn’t come until the vote was already underway. He sought a recount after the fact, but Farmer had already gavelled the resolution dead.

One observer noted the fight over the ouster resolution could portend a splintering among the House Republican Caucus going forward. The extent of the fallout and the fate of inevitable resurrection attempts remain to be seen.

Lawyers form coalition to oppose legislative move to oust judge

Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) attends a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A group calling itself the Committee for an Independent Judiciary is forming a coalition to fight efforts by legislative Republicans to oust Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle for her ruling expanding access to absentee voting last summer.

“Currently in Tennessee, there is an unprecedented and misguided attempt by some state lawmakers to remove a highly qualified and respected judge because they disagree with one of her decisions,” according to the group.

“During her 25-year career on the bench, Chancellor Lyle has consistently handed down thousands of legal rulings based on the law. Tennessee’s legislature has never in its long history removed a judge from office. This resolution is a threat to judicial independence and, if passed, would quickly erode the fundamental separation of powers. As this bill makes its way through the state legislature, concerned citizens must come together and express opposition.”

The coalition’s leadership committees are comprised of:

  • Bob Boston, Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis, Nashville.
  • Roger Dickson, Miller & Martin, Chattanooga.
  • Aubrey Harwell. Neal & Harwell, Nashville.
  • Lucian Pera, Adams & Reese, Memphis.
  • Wayne Ritchie, Ritchie, Dillard, Davies & Johnson, Knoxville.
  • D. Billye Sanders, Dockery & Associates, Nashville.

The resolution filed by Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) claims Lyle “committed serious ethical violations and abused her authority by pursuing a personal and partisan agenda” by ruling in favor of greater access to mail-in ballots during the pandemic.

Lyle, who was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in the 1990s, has made many high-profile ruling over the years. They included a decision to allow Tennessee’s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to appear on the 2006 ballot despite the state missing a public notice deadline.

Warner got another $138K under federal PPP program in January

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman state Rep. Todd Warner, the Chapel Hill Republican who had his business and legislative offices searched by the FBI in January, received another $138,435 in federal COVID-19 relief funds later that month. That’s on top of the $149,630 he received in April 2019.

Warner last week denied to The Tennessean that any of the money he received under the the federal Paycheck Protection Program had gone toward funding the $154,100 he loaned his campaign last year. “If I’m charged with it I feel like I’m innocent,” he told the paper.

The federal funds were directed to his contracting company, PCS of TN, which reported employing 16 people.

The candidate’s largesse raised eyebrows during the race because Warner had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection a decade earlier due to his inability to pay $20 million in debts. Warner said he obtained the money for his political pursuits via an unrelated bank loan.

Warner defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis of Lewisburg in the August primary.

The FBI also searched the homes and offices of Republican Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin and Robin Smith of Hixson. The Registry of Election Finance informed Warner it was reopening a complaint filed by the Tillis camp against him and an independent expenditure group called the Faith Freedom Family Find.

Hargett signs letter opposing federal voting bill

Secretary of State Tre Hargett speaks with Rep. Curtis Johnson (R-Clarksville) before Gov. Bill Haslam’s final State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2018 in Nashville. (Photo credit: Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee’s Tre Hargett has signed onto a letter from from Republican secretaries of state opposing legislation in congress aiming to set national voting guidelines. The letter is written by John Merrill of Alabama and signed by 15 other top state election officials.

The letter comes as Tennessee’s Attorney General Herbert Slatery has also joined Republican colleagues from other states in opposing the legislation.

Dear Majority Leader Schumer, Minority Leader McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and House Minority Leader McCarthy:

We are writing you today to urge you to reject the “For the People Act” otherwise known as H.R. 1 or S. 1, which is a dangerous overreach by the federal government into the administration of elections.

Each state legislature should have the freedom and flexibility to determine practices that best meet the needs of their respective states. A one-size-fits-all approach mandated by Congress is not the solution to any of our problems.

These bills intrude upon our constitutional rights, and further sacrifice the security and integrity of the elections process. We firmly believe the authority to legislate and regulate these changes should be left with the states.

H.R. 1 and S. 1 blatantly undermine the extensive work we, as election officials, have completed in order to provide safe, accessible voting options for our constituencies. Many of the proposed practices would reverse the years of progress that has been made. We are strongly opposed to these bills and hope you will dismiss efforts to advance this legislation.

Thank you for your consideration and attention to this matter.

/SIGNED/

John H. Merrill
Alabama Secretary of State

Kevin Meyer
Alaska Lieutenant Governor

Brad Raffensperger
Georgia Secretary of State

Connie Lawson
Indiana Secretary of State

Scott Schwab
Kansas Secretary of State

Michael Adams
Kentucky Secretary of State

Kyle Ardoin
Louisiana Secretary of State

Bob Evnen
Nebraska Secretary of State

Alvin A. Jaeger
North Dakota Secretary of State

Steve Barnett
South Dakota Secretary of State

Tre Hargett
Tennessee Secretary of State

Mac Warner
West Virginia Secretary of State

Ed Buchanan
Wyoming Secretary of State

The doors of the Senate shall be open again

The Senate Education Committee meets on March 16, 2020, amid a ban on public attendance in the Cordell Hull Building (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Senate is reopening to the public after shutting down most access during the pandemic. According to a Tennessee Lobbyists Association memo, the upper chamber is dropping most of the restrictions it had imposed when COVID-19 struck last year. The House restrictions were never as wide-ranging to begin with, and most its mitigation efforts were lifted last month.

Here is the memo outlining the Senate changes:

TLA Members,

We were notified of the following changes this evening:

Due to increased vaccine availability and the overall decline in the spread of COVID -19, Lt. Governor McNally will be implementing revised building protocols beginning Monday, March 8. These protocols apply to the 7th Floor of Cordell Hull Building, Senate Hearing Room I and Senate Floor Sessions:

1. Members of the public will be admitted to the Cordell Hull Building using the main entrance on Rep. John Lewis Way and will have elevator access to the 7th Floor.

2. Until elevator programming is adjusted, General Assembly staff will assist the public with elevator access to the 7th floor. Once programming is complete, elevator access for the public will be open.

3. Members of the public are encouraged not to enter a member’s office without an appointment.

4. Senate Hearing Room I will be open to the public with limited seating. So-cial distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained and enforced.

4. The public may access the Capitol through the tunnel for Senate Floor Sessions. One elevator will be designated for members only for session.

5. The Senate Gallery is open with limited seating available for the public and reserved seating for media. Social distancing and capacity restrictions shall be maintained.

6. The area outside the Senate Chamber is reserved for Senate staff.

7. The 8th Floor and 7th floor Senate Conference Rooms remain closed.

8. There shall be no Days on the Hill, group meetings or tours.

9. Appropriate CDC facial coverings are required in the Senate facilities of the Cordell Hull Building and the Capitol, including the tunnel.

10. Individuals with 2021 Photo Identification Badges issued by the General Assembly may access the Cordell Hull Building through the entrance on 6th Avenue.

11. The north elevator is reserved for members and staff, no public use.

12. Committee chairs may choose in-person or remote testimony for their committee meetings.

The protocols are subject to modification at any time.

Slatery signs onto GOP AGs’ letter criticizing congressional voting bill

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has signed on to a letter urging the defeat of a bill by congressional Democrats they say would “federalize state elections and impose burdensome costs and regulations on state and local officials.”

The letter is written by Indiana AG Todd Rokita and joined by 19 others including Slatery.

Here’s the full text (footnotes omitted):

Dear Madame Speaker, Minority Leader McCarthy, Majority Leader Schumer, and Minority Leader McConnell:

As the chief legal officers of our states, we write regarding H.R.1, the For the People Act of 2021 (the “Act”) and any companion Senate bill. As introduced, the Act betrays several Constitutional deficiencies and alarming mandates that, if passed, would federalize state elections and impose burdensome costs and regulations on state and local officials. Under both the Elections Clause of Article I of the Constitution and the Electors Clause of Article II, States have principal—and with presidential elections, exclusive— responsibility to safeguard the manner of holding elections. The Act would invert that constitutional structure, commandeer state resources, confuse and muddle elections procedures, and erode faith in our elections and systems of governance. Accordingly, Members of Congress may wish to consider the Act’s constitutional vulnerabilities as well as the policy critiques of state officials.

First, the Act regulates “election for Federal office,” defined to include “election for the office of President or Vice President.”1 The Act therefore implicates the Electors Clause, which expressly affords “Each State” the power to “appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct,” the state’s

allotment of presidential electors, and separately affords Congress only the more limited power to “determine the Time of chusing the Electors.” That exclusive division of power for setting the “manner” and “time” of choosing presidential electors differs markedly from the collocated powers of the Article I Elections Clause, which says that both States and Congress have the power to regulate the “time, place, and manner” of congressional elections. That distinction is not an accident of drafting. After extensive debate, the Constitution’s Framers deliberately excluded Congress from deciding how presidential electors would be chosen in order to avoid presidential dependence on Congress for position and authority. Accordingly, the Supreme Court, in upholding a Michigan statute apportioning presidential electors by district, observed that the Electors Clause “convey[s] the broadest power of determination” and “leaves it to the [state] legislature exclusively to define the method” of appointment of electors. McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 27 (1892) (emphasis added). The exclusivity of state power to “define the method” of choosing presidential electors means that Congress may not force states to permit presidential voting by mail or curbside voting, for example.

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It’s Arbor Day in Tennessee

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters following his address to a joint convention of the General Assembly on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has proclaimed March 5 as Arbor Day in Tennessee and Winchester is kicking off its first year as Tree City USA.

Here’s the full release from the state Agriculture Department:

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Lee has proclaimed March 5 as Arbor Day in Tennessee to recognize the importance of planting and maintaining trees in our state. This year’s state celebration will be held in Winchester, which is celebrating its first year as Tree City USA.

“I admire all Tree City USA communities, but this year’s distinction holds a special place in my heart since Winchester is my hometown,” State Forester David Arnold said. “Our state Arbor Celebration is a reminder of the value of trees in small communities and in large cities. Our partnerships with local governments, tree care advocates, and the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council help us strengthen urban environments through planting and management of trees.”

In Tennessee, Arbor Day is officially celebrated on the first Friday in March. In 1875, Tennessee became one of the first states to adopt this special day. The state legislature set “Bird, Flower and Arbor Day” in 1925. This law calls for educators, civic societies, and government officials to create a better understanding of nature and the importance of protecting wildlife, planting and cultivating flowers, and setting and protecting trees.

Tree City is a nationwide movement that provides the framework for communities to manage and expand their public trees. So far, 46 Tennessee communities have met the Tree City standards.

Citizens are encouraged to support Arbor Day by visiting local retail nurseries and garden centers for Tennessee-grown trees. The Division of Forestry’s East Tennessee Nursery also grows tree seedlings to meet forest conservation needs. Selecting locally grown trees adds value to your home with a quality product that is already acclimated to Tennessee’s growing conditions. A list of nurseries and garden centers with locally grown trees is available at www.picktnproducts.org.

Trees require proper maintenance for vigorous and healthy growth. For information about how to properly maintain landscape trees, visit your local Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry office or visit www.tn.gov/agriculture/forests/urban.html.

The Division of Forestry protects Tennessee’s forests by fighting wildfires, coordinating hazard emergency response, providing prescribed fire guidance and contract services, as well as wildland fire training. Additionally, the Division promotes the responsible use of forest resources by assisting landowners, providing quality seedlings, monitoring insects and diseases, improving urban forests, managing state forests, protecting water quality, and collecting forest inventory data. The Division also works to promote primary and secondary forest industries to stimulate the state’s economy. Visit www.tn.gov/agriculture/forests for more information.

Warner denies federal PPP loan money used to fund campaign

Rep. Todd Warner (R-Chapel Hill) is sworn into the House in Nashville on Jan. 12, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Freshman Rep. Todd Warner, one of three Republican lawmakers who had their homes and offices raided by the FBI in January, tells The Tennessean‘s Natalie Allison he didn’t use federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for his campaign.

Warner, a Chapel Hill businessman, received $149,630 under the Paycheck Protection Program in April. He later loaned his campaign $154,100 in the process of defeating incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg) in the August primary.

Warner told the paper he used the PPP money to cover allowable business expenses, while he separately borrowed the money he loaned his campaign from a bank.

“They question your integrity, whether you’re an honest man when you’ve been blown up and they say you’re bankrupt, which I have been in 2010,” Warner told the paper, adding he had since rebounded financially.

Warner’s company filed for federal bankruptcy protection when he couldn’t pay more than $20 million in debts during the Great Recession.

“It was a sad time,” Warner said. “I hope we aren’t headed there again with the government giving all this money away.”

The FBI also hauled away materials from the homes and offices of former House Speaker Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and Rep. Robin Smith (R-Hixson).

Kelly, White advance to runoff for Chattanooga mayor

Powersports dealer Tim Kelly and former economic development nonprofit president Kim White have advanced to the runoff to succeed term-limited Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.

Kelly has said he doesn’t identify with either party. He gave donations to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden last year and Republican gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd in 2018. The son of a former Cadillac dealer, Kelly sold his own Subaru franchise last year. He still owns a large Honda powersports dealership.

White was the choice among conservative voters and the Chamber of Commerce crowd. She used to work for the real estate company of Bob Corker, a former mayor and U.S. senator. She later headed the River City Co.

Wade Hinton, a former city attorney under Berke, finished third.

Here are the top finishers among the 15 candidates:

Tim Kelly8,56230%
Kim White8,28929%
Wade Hinton6,10822%
Monty R Bruell2,4078%
Russell J Gilbert Sr.8893%
Elenora Woods8053%
Chris Long4912%
Erskine Oglesby Jr.3221%
Monty Dewayne Bell1571%

The runoff is scheduled for April 13.

Bar association blasts bid to remove judge over absentee ballot ruling

Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro), standing right, attends a GOP caucus meeting on July 24, 2019, in Nashville. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Bar Association says an effort to oust a Nashville judge over her ruling in an absentee voting case last summer “threatens the bedrock principle of separation of powers.”

Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) introduced the resolution to begin ouster proceedings against Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle last week. The measure has 67 co-sponsors — enough for the removal to clear the House chamber if it came up for a floor vote. Lyle was appointed to the bench by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in the 1990s.

Bar Association President Michelle Greenway Seller said in a release that if the ouster succeeds, it could “create a precedent that any time a judge rules against the state, or on a statute, or renders a politically unpopular decision, that decision could potentially trigger legislative removal proceedings against that judge.”

Read the full release below.

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