Monthly Archives: August 2023

House turmoil focus of special session coverage

Gun protesters unfurl a banner in the gallery of the House chamber on Aug. 28, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The silencing of Rep. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and subsequent walkout by House Democrats dominated the news coverage of Monday’s special session. Here are the headline:

Associated Press: GOP silences ‘Tennessee Three’ Democrat on House floor for day on ‘out of order’ rule; crowd erupts.

Tennessee Lookout: Democrats walk out over Jones silencing, as House-Senate remain in stalemate.

USA Today: Republican lawmakers silence ‘Tennessee Three’ Democrat on House floor for day on ‘out of order’ rule.

New York Times: Tennessee G.O.P. Again Silences Democratic Lawmaker Justin Jones.

Daily Memphian: House Speaker ejects audience, silences Jones in special session; Democrats walk off in protest.

WKRN-TV: Democrats walk out of House session after Rep. Jones silenced; Gallery cleared.

WTFV-TV: Rep. Justin Jones has been silenced from the House on Monday. Democrats left. The public screamed.

WREG-TV: Democrats walk out of House session after Rep. Jones silenced; Gallery cleared.

WMC-TV: Member of ‘Tennessee Three’ silenced on House floor as special session stalemate between House and Senate continues.

Special session in the headlines

The Senate Democratic Caucus has compiled 10 headlines as the General Assembly heads into the second week of a special session called in response to the mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School. Just for good measure we’ll add our own from the print edition of The Tennessee Journal: “Lawmakers shield themselves from advocates in special session.”

Here’s the other fine reporting highlighted by the Senate Dems:

ChalkbeatTennessee legislature will avoid gun control in special session prompted by mass school shooting.

FOX 17No mental health issues poised to become law in Tenn. session reacting to school shooting.

Tennessee Lookout: TN House passes rules to restrict speech, limit disruptions and public during special session.

PBS NewsHourGOP-led Tennessee legislature orders removal of public from gun control hearing.

Action News 5Judge blocks rule banning signs after lawsuit over group removed from Tenn. special session.

Williamson Herald: State Legislature’s special session brings controversy.

Phil WilliamsHave you seen this man? Lawmakers say Tennessee governor missing from special session talks.

The Washington PostDespite shooting, hope fades for gun laws in Tennessee special session.

APGun control already ruled out, Tennessee GOP lawmakers hit impasse in session after school shooting.

Times Free PressTennessee House, Senate Republicans return amid bitter stalemate.

AG goes to bat for House ban on signs, doesn’t mention Senate keeping old rules in place

State Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is calling on Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin to dissolve the temporary restraining order blocking the House from enforcing a ban on people carrying small signs in the chamber’s galleries or in committee rooms. [UPDATE: Chancellor Martin on Monday retained the injunction on the sign ban.]

Skrmetti said the court has no jurisdiction to intervene in rules governing activities inside the Capitol complex and that a sign ban has been in place for years without challenge.

The historical record tells a different story.

A federal court intervened in 1965 when the state Senate decided to block reporters and photographers for The Tennessean from entering the chamber in retribution for refusing to leave a committee room when members wanted to take a vote behind closed doors. U.S. District Judge William E. Miller, who had been appointed to the bench Dwight Eisenhower and later elevated to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals by Richard Nixon, found a resolution barring the newspaper “creates a deterrent to the free an unfettered expression of ideas, views, and opinions which the First Amendment, as construed by the Supreme Court, was designed to inhibit.”

The reporters were let back into the chamber and the Senate dropped efforts to block the paper in the future.

“The General Assembly has long recognized that permitting signs in the galleries can disrupt legislative business,” the AG argued in a motion filed Thursday. The filing added that “a similar restriction on hand-held signs at the seat of the legislature has been in place for years,” citing a December 2017 news story about a ban on hand-carried signs being put into effect by the General Assembly when it moved into the Cordell Hull Building in 2017.

But the filing doesn’t include subsequent steps to do away with the blanket ban less than a month later, after then-Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) announced plans to ask for an attorney general’s opinion on its constitutionality. No opinion appears to have been forthcoming after the updated policy said: “small letter sized signs that do not obstruct the view of visitors are acceptable.”

The rule on letter-sized signs had been in place ever since – and remains the rule in the Senate even after the House made its change last week. Skrmetti’s filing doesn’t address the split views between the chambers about whether signs are acceptable. In fact, the document mostly refers to the interests of the General Assembly as a whole rather than just a one of the two bodies it is comprised of.

In Martin’s order agreeing to hear arguments, the judge said she found her earlier decision to issue the temporary restraining order was “was proper and consistent” with Tennessee law and that her quick decision to block the rules had come because of a “the lack of complexity to the relevant facts and the discrete nature of the legal issues for consideration.”

Former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist dies

Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist signs a bill shortly before midnight in his office in Nashville, Tenn., on June 30, 2002 to avoid a government shutdown for five more days. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Former Gov. Don Sundquist died Sunday morning. He was 87.

Sundquist was governor from 1995 to 2003 and previously served 12 years in the U.S. House.

Sundquist alienated may fellow Republicans by spearheading tax reform efforts in his second term. While he called his proposal a fair tax, the proposal was criticized as trying to create an income tax in Tennessee. The legislature’s debate over such measures led to heavy protests around the state Capitol. In the end, Sundquist’s effort failed and lawmakers instead passed a 1-point increase in the state’s sales tax rate in 2002.

“Don Sundquist was a loyal friend and a man with a good heart,” Lamar Alexander, a former governor governor and U.S. senator. “He helped our state prosper and expanded health insurance for Tennesseans. He put the state ahead of his own political interests. The Alexander family sends to Martha and their family our sympathy and respect for Don’s life.”

Here is Gov. Bill Lee’s statement:

Governor Sundquist was an impactful leader and principled statesman who devoted his life to public service. As Tennessee’s governor for two terms, he contributed to our state’s legacy of fiscal responsibility and expanded opportunity for Tennesseans through historic economic development. Maria and I join all Tennesseans in honoring Governor Sundquist’s remarkable life, and we pray God’s comfort over Martha and their family in the days ahead.

Here is U.S. Rep David Kustoff’s response:

Roberta and I are saddened to learn of the passing of Don Sundquist. Over his long and successful career, Don Sundquist has served as a business leader, Member of Congress, and Governor. In public office and out of public office, Don Sundquist cared greatly and profoundly about the people of Tennessee and worked tirelessly for their betterment. Don was a true friend to both Roberta and me. He will be deeply missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, former First Lady of Tennessee, Martha and their children, Tania, Andrea, and Deke.

And from U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis):

I was a State Senator for the eight years that Don Sundquist served as Governor of Tennessee, and we had a very fine relationship. I respected him and developed a friendship, unlike many others with whom I served. We had the ability to find common ground on important issues, such as the public voting on the state lottery, tax benefits that helped with the funding of AutoZone Park, a wildflower program along our interstate highway system, as well as a 70 miles-per-hour interstate speed limit.

Read the Sundquist family obituary:

Gov. Don Sundquist, who was instrumental in building the Republican majority in Tennessee, died on August 27, 2023 in Memphis, TN. Though he was a successful businessman, six-term U.S. Representative, and the 47th Governor of Tennessee, the titles he most cherished were husband, father, grandfather, and loyal friend. His 87 years of life are a testament to his oft-quoted quip, “There are workhorses and show horses; I’m a work horse.” 

Born in Moline, Illinois on March 15, 1936, to Louise and Kenneth Sundquist, he was the first in his family to attend college. While at Augustana College, he met the love of his life, Martha Swanson. After the two married, he went on to serve his country in the United States Navy before joining Jostens in Illinois, where he gained valuable corporate experience and was eventually transferred to Shelbyville, Tennessee. He fell in love with the land and the people of West Tennessee and set out on his own to start a printing and advertising firm, Graphic Sales of America in Memphis. 

While raising his young family and running his business, Sundquist never lost his desire to serve his country and remained active in local and national politics. He was an organizer for the Goldwater for President campaign and was elected as the national chair of Young Republicans in 1971. He served as a delegate to both the 1976 and 1980 Republican National Conventions and managed the presidential campaign of Sen. Howard Baker in 1980.

In 1982, Sundquist entered the race for the 7th Congressional District. His opponent had high name recognition and significant coffers, but Sundquist’s belief in the power of grass-roots politics and tireless campaign stops to meet voters led him to victory by a mere 1,476 votes. He went on to be easily re-elected five more times and served on the House Ways and Means Committee where he earned the reputation as a staunch fiscal conservative. 

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New TNJ alert: GOP lawmakers throw up barriers to public, feds channel top shelf whiskey

A gun protester holds up a sign during the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The latest print edition of The Tennessee Journal is out. Here is what’s in it:

— Lawmakers shield themselves from advocates in special session.

— Courtside seat: Prosecutors to Phoenix Solutions: You’re no Pappy Van Winkle.

— From the campaign trail: O’Connell gets COVID-19, elbows thrown in Memphis mayoral contest.

Also: Joe Towns can’t stand the heat, shuttered Middle Tennessee newspapers revived, a taxpayer funded birthday party in Memphis, and G.A. Hardaway’s Freudian slip.

As always, access the your copy of the TNJ here.

Or subscribe here.

Capitol press corps pushes for public gallery access

The Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps is pushing back against a claim the public can’t use one of the state House galleries because the media needs to operate there. The viewing areas have long been shared with the public by television crews — in fact, a permanent platform has been built in one corner to accommodate tripods.

“We do not endorse using the media as an excuse to prevent the public from watching their representatives at work,” the press corps said in a letter to House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville).

Here’s the full letter:

The Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps firmly believes that reporters are vital in providing information about the General Assembly to the public. But this does not have to come at the sacrifice of keeping interested constituents from seeing their government in action.

That is why we are reaching out in alarm over House leadership using the media as among the reasons why the public should be barred from accessing the west side gallery during special session.

We want to be extremely clear: We believe that the press should have unobstructed and fair access to observe and report on legislative proceedings. However, we do not endorse using the media as an excuse to prevent the public from watching their representatives at work.

We have repeatedly seen reporters, photographers and other newspersons join packed galleries during extremely busy times at the Tennessee Capitol with great success. Most recently, during the April expulsion hearings, news organizations from across the country worked with House officials to ensure they had room to do their job while the galleries remained at capacity. That effort should be praised and repeated, not abandoned.

It is no secret that the Capitol Hill Press Corps will fight to secure a seat for every journalist inside the Tennessee Capitol – but we have not asked for more room than we need. Furthermore, we are more than willing to work from a reserved section in the gallery to allow for more members of the public to join the west side gallery.

We encourage leadership to consider all options that amplify press access and public attendance and reject any notion that we endorse the current response that is currently in place.

Thank you for your time,
Members of the Tennessee Capitol Hill Press Corps

Kelsey appealing 21-month sentence in campaign finance case

Brian Kelsey , center, awaits Gov. Bill Lee arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Former state Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) is appealing his 21-month prison sentence following his guilty plea to two felonies related to his 2016 bid for Congress.

Kelsey filed notice but didn’t elaborate on what basis he will bring his challenge to the 6th Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kelsey’s latest set of attorneys had argued that the former lawmaker shouldn’t face any time behind bars.

Here are the House committee assignments for the special session

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) presides on the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) doesn’t appear to have taken kindly to a motion to adjourn the special session before it began. Rep. Kelly Keisling (R-Byrdstown) lost his position as chair of the State Government Committee for being one of six lawmakers to vote for the motion made by Rep. Byran Richey (R-Maryville) on Monday.

Here are Sexton’s committee assignments for the special session:

Alexander, Rebecca (R-Jonesborough)
Business and Utilities Subcommittee
Cities Subcommittee
Commerce Committee
Local Government Committee
Public Service Subcommittee
State Government Committee

Barrett, Jody (R-Dickson)
Appropriations Subcommittee
Banking and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee
Commerce Committee
Finance, Ways and Means Committee

Baum, Charlie (R-Murfreesboro)
Appropriations Subcommittee
Education Administration Committee
Finance, Ways and Means Committee
Finance, Ways and Means Subcommittee
K-12 Subcommittee

Boyd, Clark (R-Lebanon)
Business and Utilities Subcommittee
Commerce Committee
Finance, Ways and Means Committee
Health Committee

Bricken, Rush (R-Tullahoma)
Banking and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee
Civil Justice Committee
Commerce Committee
Departments and Agencies Subcommittee
State Government Committee

Bulso, Gino (R-Franklin)
Civil Justice Committee
Civil Justice Subcommittee
Education Administration Committee
Government Operations Committee
K-12 Subcommittee

Burkhart, Jeff (R-Clarksville)
Business and Utilities Subcommittee
Commerce Committee
Election and Campaign Finance Subcommittee
Local Government Committee
Transportation Committee

Butler, Ed (R-Rickman)
Corrections Subcommittee
Education Administration Committee
K-12 Subcommittee
State Government Committee
Transportation Committee

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Photo gallery of the first day of the special session

A gun protester holds up a sign during the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)

Here is a look at some of the action from the first day of the special session on public safety in Nashville on Monday.

Tempers rise during a House floor debate on rules for the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. From left are Reps. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville), Harold Love (D-Nashville), William Lamberth (R-Portland), and Sam Whitson (R-Franklin). (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal).
Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) and Scott Cepicky (R-Culleoka) the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) presides on the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
Gun protesters attend the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
Reps. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby), left, and Joe Towns (D-Memphis) confer on the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
Rep. Tim Rudd (R-Murfreesboro) attends the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
Rep. Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville) looks up at the gallery during the first day of the special session on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)
Gun protesters attend the first day of the special session while a state trooper with a body camera watches on Aug. 21, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal.)

The bullhorn rule: House creates new disciplinary rules following Tennessee Three debacle

House Republicans are adopting a new set of guidelines to deal with disruptions and unruly conduct following last spring’s ouster of two lawmakers for leading a gun protest from the well of the chamber.

Under new rules adopted for the special session, members deemed to have “caused a material disruption” of official legislative business will be barred from speaking on the floor for three days. A second offense would be punished by a six-day ban, followed by a loss of speaking privileges for the remainder of the session on the third offense. Members could still vote even if they lost their speaking privileges.

An ad-hoc committee made up of the speaker pro tem, the majority and minority leaders, and the two parties’ caucus chairs would make disciplinary recommendations to the speaker for members found to have impugned the reputation of others during committee meetings.

The rules would specifically ban “voice or noise amplification devices” like the bullhorn Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson did to rally the gallery in April. They would also put the kibosh on flags, signs, and banners in the gallery.

The public will also have a harder time entering the Capitol. The tunnel connecting the Cordell Hull to the statehouse will be closed off from 30 minutes before a floor session to a half-hour after it concludes. And much wider cordon has been set around the House and Senate chambers, meaning fewer people will be able to get into the lobby area while sessions are going on.


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