Kelsey granted reprieve from prison while mounting appeal

Sen. Brian Kelsey walks in the state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw has granted former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s motion to stay out of prison while he mounts an appeal of his 21-month sentence for masterminding a scheme to funnel money raised for his state account to back his unsuccessful congressional bid in 2016.

Kelsey, who pleaded guilty to two felony counts, argued federal prosecutors had violated the agreement by advocating for a sentence enhancement because he tried to withdraw the deal. The government said it wasn’t arguing in favor of the enhancement, but only noting that the recommendation was valid because perjury is considered obstruction of justice.

Kelsey had been scheduled to report to prison next month. Now he will remain on bail until the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals determines whether prosecutors violated the plea deal. The government argues that even if Kelsey prevails, the case is likely to go to another federal judge for sentencing. The former lawmaker’s legal team says the result could be a cancellation of the entire plea agreement and the case going to trial.

Speakers announce task force to look into rejecting federal education money

Senate Speaker Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton await Gov. Bill Lee’s arrival for his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and his Senate counterpart Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) have named a 10-member task force to look into the feasibility of rejecting federal education funding in Tennessee.

Here’s the release from Sexton’s office:

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) — Today, House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) announced the creation of a new Joint Working Group to study the impact federal education funding has in and out of the classroom, the restrictions, mandates, and additional regulations required by the Federal Department of Education, and whether the state can provide similar services without taking federal dollars.

The bipartisan Joint Working Group — comprised of House and Senate members — is authorized and directed to study, evaluate, analyze, and undertake a comprehensive review of federal education funding and its impact on the classroom, the curriculum, and attainment.

“Any time the federal government sends money, there are always strings attached to those dollars, and there is always a possibility that it opens the state up to other regulations or restrictions,” said Speaker Sexton. “This working group will help provide a clearer picture of how much autonomy Tennessee truly has in educating our students.”

The 10-member panel will also report on the feasibility of the state rejecting federal funds and recommend a strategy to reject certain federal funds or eliminate unwanted restrictions placed on the state due to the receipt of such federal funds if it is feasible to do so.

“The education of our youth is one of the essential responsibilities of our government,” said Lt. Gov. McNally. “Federal dollars and the various mandates and restrictions that come with those dollars affect the way Tennessee’s children are educated. Due to our state’s excellent financial position, this is a worthy subject of examination and study.”

Rep. Debra Moody (R-Covington) and Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) will serve as co-chairs.

House members include Rep. Ronnie Glynn (D-Clarksville), Rep. Timothy Hill (R-Blountville), Rep. John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge), and Rep. William Slater (R-Gallatin). Senate members include Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis), Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), Sen. Bill Powers (R-Clarksville), and Sen. Dawn White (R-Murfreesboro).

A date and time for the first meeting of the Joint Working Group on Federal Education Funding has yet to be determined and will be announced later.

Lee launches $20M family grant program

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters outside the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on Jan. 19, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee is launching a $20 million family grant program for expecting mothers and families. Some of the money will go toward crisis pregnancy centers.

“Being pro-life is much more than protecting the lives of the unborn – it’s also about protecting the dignity of every human being,” Lee said in a statement.

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

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that applications are now open for the Tennessee Strong Families Grant Program, which dedicates $20 million to improve access to maternal healthcare and boost critical resources for mothers, children and families by supporting local nonprofits across the state, including pregnancy centers. 

 “Being pro-life is much more than protecting the lives of the unborn – it’s also about protecting the dignity of every human being,” Lee said. “Strong families are central to strong communities, and we’re proud to partner with the General Assembly to prioritize resources for local partners that serve Tennesseans in need. We welcome any Tennessee organization that serves expecting mothers and families to apply for these critical grant funds.”  

 In the state’s FY23-24 budget, the Governor and General Assembly funded $20 million to create the Strong Families Grant Program and provide the opportunity for nonprofit organizations, including pregnancy centers, to partner with the state to provide support based on the unique needs of the mothers, children and families they serve. Examples of these services include: 

— Direct services for pregnancy support, which can include medical, mental health or other counseling services.    

— Support for Tennesseans who are considering adoption.   

— Workforce assistance to prepare new moms for self-sufficiency.  

— Housing assistance to help moms in crisis find a safe and stable place to live.  

— Additional wraparound services to support vulnerable mothers and their children. 

Application materials for the grants are available online where applicants may view webinars and access training and technical assistance.  

The grant program is just one facet of the Governor’s Strong Tennessee Families initiative, which dedicated a historic investment of more than $600 million in the State’s FY23-24 budget.   

The Tennessee Departments of Health, Children’s Services and Human Services worked alongside the Family Advocacy Unit in the Department of Finance and Administration to gather input from stakeholders through a pregnancy needs assessment survey. These agencies form a planning committee that informs the grant program. The Office of Criminal Justice Programs in the Department of Finance and Administration will administer the grants, because of their expertise in issuing and overseeing grants to non-profit organizations.  

Feds indict five former Memphis police officers in Tyre Nichols killing

A federal grand jury in Memphis has indicted five former police officers in the killing of Tyre Nichols in January.

“The country watched in horror as Tyre Nichols was kicked, punched, tased, and pepper sprayed, and we all heard Mr. Nichols cry out for his mother and say ‘I’m just trying to go home,’” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement. “Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement. They dishonor their fellow officers who do their work with integrity every day. The Justice Department will continue to hold accountable officers who betray their oath.”

Here’s the release from the Justice Department:

WASHINGTON – A federal grand jury in Memphis, Tennessee, returned an indictment today charging five former Memphis Police Department (MPD) detectives with federal civil rights, conspiracy, and obstruction offenses resulting in the death of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7.

“The country watched in horror as Tyre Nichols was kicked, punched, tased, and pepper sprayed, and we all heard Mr. Nichols cry out for his mother and say ‘I’m just trying to go home,’” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement. They dishonor their fellow officers who do their work with integrity every day. The Justice Department will continue to hold accountable officers who betray their oath.”

“Tyre Nichols should be alive today,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “It is tragic to see a life cut short at 29, with so many milestones unmet, so many words unsaid, so much potential unfulfilled. These federal charges reflect the Justice Department’s unwavering commitment to protecting the constitutional and civil rights of every American and preserving the integrity of the criminal justice system. We stand ready to hold law enforcement officers accountable for their misconduct because no one is above the law in our country.”

“When I announced this investigation back in January, I said I wanted this city to be a place where justice is done,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz for the Western District of Tennessee. “This indictment alleging civil rights violations is an important step in ensuring that justice is done for Tyre Nichols. I want to thank the dedicated team of prosecutors and law enforcement agents who are working on this case. I’m proud of our team and proud of their commitment to protecting the civil rights of all Americans.”

According to the four-count indictment, all five defendants, Emmitt Martin III, 31; Tadarrius Bean, 24; Demetrius Haley, 30; Desmond Mills Jr., 33; and Justin Smith, 28, while serving as members of an MPD SCORPION team, willfully deprived Nichols of his constitutional rights. The first count of the indictment alleges that the defendants, aided and abetted by one another, violated Nichols’ right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer by assaulting him and by failing to intervene in the unlawful assault. Count one also alleges that this offense resulted in bodily injury and the death of Nichols.

Count two of the indictment alleges that all five defendants violated Nichols’ right to be free from a law enforcement officer’s deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs. Specifically, the indictment alleges that even though the defendants knew that Nichols had a serious medical need, the defendants willfully disregarded that medical need by failing to render medical aid and by failing to advise the MPD dispatcher and emergency medical personnel of the circumstances surrounding Nichols’ serious medical need. Count two also alleges that this offense resulted in bodily injury and death of Nichols.

Count three of the indictment alleges that all five defendants conspired to cover up their use of unlawful force by omitting material information and by providing false and misleading information to their supervisor and to others. Specifically, the indictment outlines overt acts the defendants committed in furtherance of the conspiracy, including, among others, failing to tell MPD and Memphis Fire Department personnel that the defendants had struck Nichols and that the defendants had discussed hitting Nichols with straight haymakers and taking turns hitting him. Further, the indictment alleges that the defendants provided false and misleading information to two MPD officers tasked with writing reports about Nichols’ arrest. Finally, it alleges that the defendants submitted Response to Resistance Reports that contained false and misleading information and omitted that the defendants had assaulted Nichols.

Count four of the indictment alleges that the defendants committed an obstruction offense by intentionally omitting material information, and providing false and misleading information, to two MPD officers tasked with writing MPD reports about the arrest of Nichols.

Counts one and two of the indictment carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Counts three and four each carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The charges announced today are separate from the Justice Department’s civil pattern or practice investigation into the MPD. The charges announced today are criminal, while the pattern or practice investigation is a civil investigation that will be conducted separately and independently from the criminal case and will be handled by a different team of career staff from the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The charges announced today are also separate from, and in addition to, the charges the State of Tennessee has brought against these former officers related to the death of Nichols. The federal charges allege different criminal offenses. Specifically, and among other federal charges, today’s indictment alleges violations of the U.S. Constitution, rather than of state law.

The FBI Memphis Field Office investigated this case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys David Pritchard and Elizabeth Rogers for the Western District of Tennessee and Special Litigation Counsel Kathryn E. Gilbert and Deputy Chief Forrest Christian of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division are prosecuting the case.

View the Attorney General’s full video statement here.

An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

Tarwater sworn into Tennessee Supreme Court

The Tennessee Supreme Court building is seen in Nashville on Dec. 8, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Knoxville attorney Dwight Tarwater has been sworn into the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Here’s is the release from the Administrative Office of the Courts:

Nashville – Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Dwight E. Tarwater received a warm welcome to the bench this week when family, friends, colleagues, elected officials, and the judiciary joined him in Knoxville for his ceremonial investiture by Governor Bill Lee.

Justice Tarwater was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice by the Tennessee legislature in March and his term began on September 1, 2023. He fills the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sharon G. Lee.

“This is what history is, what history making should look like,” said Deborah Taylor Tate, former director of the Administrative Office of the Courts and longtime friend of Justice Tarwater. “The civil and respectful passing of the torch, changing of the guard, whether by investiture or a simple oath taking — this is what we do and who we are. Our forefathers expected no less. Today in Tennessee we are living out this constitutional mandate.”

In the selection of a new Tennessee Supreme Court justice, there is an extensive public application and hearing process before three candidates are recommended to the Governor. The Governor then conducts personal interviews and selects one of those candidates to nominate. After several hearings before legislative committees, the General Assembly holds a vote on whether to confirm the Governor’s nominee. Justice Tarwater was unanimously confirmed by both houses of the General Assembly.

“As Governor, I have the job and the opportunity of selecting justices to the Supreme Court,” Governor Lee said. “I have said on many occasions that this may be the most important, if not one of the most important jobs, that a governor has. Justice is the cornerstone of the selection process. It’s the cornerstone for a position on the Supreme Court. I am confident Justice Tarwater is the right person for the job.”

Justice Tarwater joins Chief Justice Holly Kirby (Memphis), Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins (Franklin), Justice Roger A. Page (Mifflin – Chester County), and Justice Sarah K. Campbell (Nashville) on the state’s highest court.

“Dwight Tarwater has the integrity, the intellect, the work ethic, the compassion, and the old-fashioned common sense needed to be an excellent justice on our state’s high court. He also has perhaps the most important quality — humility,” Chief Justice Kirby said.  “On most of the questions that we hear, the ruling of the Tennessee Supreme Court is the final word. There is no appeal, no higher authority. That’s why humility is so important. The type of power state Supreme Court Justices have must be tempered by humility.”

Justice Tarwater has had a long career as a private practice attorney, developing a national reputation in handling complex litigation cases. He has managed hundreds of complex cases at the trial and appellate levels in both federal and state courts and has developed a particular talent for legal discovery, expert testimony, and jury trials. As a result, he has handled cases in all three Grand Divisions of Tennessee and more than 20 states.

In addition to his trial practice, he also is well-versed in public policy and decision-making, having served as General Counsel to former Governor Bill Haslam from 2014 to 2019.

“What you hope for is somebody on the bench with great judgment, and Dwight will bring that to the bench,” former Governor Bill Haslam said. “He understands it is not his job to make the law. It is his job to interpret laws, and he will play that role well.”

While humility and judgment were a common thread running through the investiture, speakers also praised Justice Tarwater’s deep faith, commitment to his family, and genuine personality.  His sense of humor was also fully on display.

“May it please the Court, I am Dwight Tarwater of the Knoxville Bar. It was a great privilege to be before you, and it’s a bigger honor to sit beside you. I look forward to the next mountain that we can climb together,” Justice Tarwater said, utilizing the traditional opening line stated by attorneys addressing the Court for oral argument. “I will work hard and be fair. And I promise you, Governor, I will uphold the oath I just took. I won’t let you down, and I won’t let Tennessee down.”

Justice Tarwater was born and raised in Knoxville.  He earned a B.A. in political science from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He was named a Torchbearer, the University’s highest honor, recognizing excellence in academics, leadership and service. He earned his law degree from his alma mater.

Throughout his career, Justice Tarwater has also been actively involved in the legal community, holding every leadership position possible in the Knoxville Bar Association and serving on the board of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, the Volunteer Legal Assistance Program, and the Pro Bono Project. In 2006, Justice Tarwater was inducted into the American College of Trial Lawyers, which is comprised of the best trial lawyers in the United States and Canada. He has repeatedly been recognized as one of the Best Lawyers in America, which is compiled through a peer review survey of thousands of lawyers.

Justice Tarwater has three children and five grandchildren. He resides in Knoxville. He will be on the August 2024 general election ballot as an appellate “retain/do not retain” candidate. If retained, his term will end August 31, 2030.

Full audio of the investiture ceremony is available on the Tennessee Court Talk podcast.

New TNJ edition alert: A special session post-mortem, another RNC snub, and Gloria hopes to take on Marsha

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).

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

— What compromise? Senate stamped authority on special session.

— No thanks to a re-do: Nashville gets the snub again for GOP convention.

— From the campaign trail: Johnson joins U.S. Senate race, Pearson backs Turner in Memphis

Also: Jimmy Buffett’s wasted years in Nashville, Don Sundquist lies in state, Chris Todd defends commentary, and an early candidate for Wackiest Bill of the Year.

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

Or subscribe here.

Gloria Johnson announces U.S. Senate campaign

Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) seeks recognition during a House floor session on April 6, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat who narrowly avoided expulsion from the House as a member of the “Tennessee Three,” is announcing a bid for the U.S. Senate next year.

Johnson thanked state Republicans for the “gift” of targeting the Democratic lawmakers for mounting a gun protest in the chamber after the mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School in April.

“I think it will help as we run this race,” she told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The Republican incumbent is Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood.

“While Senator Blackburn is working hard to fight back against Biden’s woke agenda, state Rep. Johnson is pushing that divisive, destructive agenda here in Tennessee,” campaign spokeswoman Abigail Sigler said in a statement. “Tennesseans deserve a United States senator who is committed to fighting for our conservative values.”

Here’s the release from the Johnson campaign:

Knoxville, TN — Today, Gloria Johnson announced she is running U.S. Senate be-cause Tennessee deserves a Senator who will fight for working families not special interests and D.C. politicians. The campaign will be co-chaired by Representative Justin J. Pearson and Senator Charlane Oliver.

Gloria Johnson has dedicated her life to serving the people of Tennessee, fighting for justice and standing tall for all who have been left out, left behind, or left without a voice. As a member of the “Tennessee Three” she demanded Republican politicians pass gun safety measures to prevent shootings like the one at The Covenant School.

An excerpt of Gloria’s remarks in Knoxville:

“We need somebody that’s gonna care about Tennessee families and lifting them up and making sure that it’s them that we’re trying to cut costs and not cutting costs for corporations and billionaires. We’ve got to make sure that Tennessee families are earning a good wage, have access to affordable health care, have great schools for their kids, and can live in dignity and be able to retire. Marsha is doing none of those things. We need somebody whose focus is going to be with Tennessee families.”

Today, Gloria will be holding events across the state. She kicked off the campaign in Knoxville near Central High School where she was a special education teacher and saw firsthand the impact of gun violence when Ryan McDonald, a student, was shot and killed in 2008. In Nashville, she will be joined by Representative Justin Jones in front of the Woman Suffrage Monument in Centennial Park, and she will end her day in Memphis at the I Am a Man Plaza, joined by Representative Justin J. Pearson.

Find out more about Gloria’s campaign at www.votegloriajohnson.com.

New TNJ edition alert: Another House fracas, Kelsey wants bail, and a Sundquist obit

House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Rep. Justin Pearson, front, collide after the special session adjourns on Aug. 29, 2023. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

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

— Special session comes to an end with yet another House flareup.

— Kelsey wants to stay out of prison while he seeks to undo sentence.

— Obituary:  Far from irrelevant: Sundquist tax plan shaped state’s political future.

Also: Indya Kincannon wins second term as Knoxville mayor, Weston Wamp decries “left-wing regime” in Red Bank, Alice Rolli channels Liz Cheney, and Jeremy Faison draws lessons from Dirty Dancing.

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

Or subscribe here.

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.


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