Jury trials suspended in Tennessee through end of January

While Gov. Bill Lee has rejected a return to more stringent government measures in response to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, the state Supreme Court has decided to delay all jury trials until at least the end of January.

Read the unanimous order here:

On March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court declared a state of emergency for the Judicial Branch of Tennessee government and activated a Continuity of Operations Plan for the courts of Tennessee. See Tenn. Const. Art. VI, § 1; Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-3-501 to 16-3-504 (2009); Moore-Pennoyer v. State, 515 S.W.3d 271, 276-77 (Tenn. 2017); Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49. This state of emergency constitutes a “disaster” for purposes of Tenn. Sup. Ct. R. 49 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-1-116.

On March 25, 2020, the Tennessee Supreme Court continued the suspension of in- person court proceedings and the extension of deadlines. On April 24, 2020, the Court modified the suspension of in-person court proceedings and extended deadlines. Under the Court’s April 24, 2020 order, the Court reviewed and approved comprehensive written plans received from the judicial districts in Tennessee to gradually begin the conduct of in-person court proceedings. On May 26, 2020, the Court extended the state  of emergency, but eased the restrictions on in-person court proceedings, including the lifting of the suspension of jury trials, subject to certain enumerated requirements. On July 9, 2020, the Court ordered the mandatory use of face coverings.

In light of the recent significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Tennessee, particularly in the rural areas of the State, and the Court’s receipt of a number of reports of instances of failure to comply with the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts by judges, attorneys, and litigants, including in some instances the appearance in open court of attorneys and litigants who have tested positive for COVID-19, the Court considers it necessary to take additional steps to protect all participants in the judicial system and the public at large. As a result, the Court orders:

  1. The suspension of all jury trials from November 23, 2020, through January 31, 2021, subject only to exceptions which may be granted by the Chief Justice on a case-by-case basis.
  2. The previously approved comprehensive written plans of the respective  judicial districts continue in full force and effect.
  3. The Court’s July 9, 2020 mandatory face coverings order remains in full force and effect and continues to apply to all persons who enter the courthouse for court-related business.
  4. As required by the previous orders of this Court and by the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts, all court matters should be conducted by means such as video conferencing and telephonic conferences, if possible, as an alternative to in-court proceedings. The Court also re- emphasizes that all in-court proceedings should be scheduled and conducted in a manner to minimize wait-time in courthouse hallways.
  5. Judges and attorneys have an ethical obligation to strictly adhere to the approved comprehensive written plans of judicial districts and to the provisions of all applicable orders of this Court related to COVID-19.
  6. No participant in a proceeding, including judges, lawyers, parties, witnesses, clerks and court officers, shall appear in court or in a court-related proceeding, including a deposition, who has tested positive for COVID-19 until the participant has strictly complied with the requirements of the Centers for Disease Control regarding isolation of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  7. This order applies statewide to all courts and court clerks’ offices except administrative courts within the Executive Branch and federal courts and federal court clerks’ offices located in Tennessee.

Under the terms of this order, the courts of Tennessee remain open, consistent  with the Judicial Branch’s obligation to mitigate the risks associated with COVID-19. Judges should work with local law enforcement and other county officials to ensure that, to the extent possible, courthouses remain accessible to carry out essential constitutional functions and time-sensitive proceedings.

Except as otherwise provided herein, the provisions of the Court’s May 26, 2020 and July 9, 2020 orders shall continue to govern, and the provisions of this order shall remain in effect until further order of this Court.

This order is intended to be interpreted broadly for protection of the public from risks associated with COVID-19.

It is so ORDERED.

Here are the candidates for House GOP leadership

Speaker Cameron Sexton presides over a House floor session on June 1, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Following Rep. Andrew Farmer’s withdrawal as a candidate for House majority leader, the only remaining contested GOP leadership race appears to be for caucus chair, where Robin Smith is challenging Jeremy Faison.

Here’s the list circulated among House Republican Caucus members (with the caveat that nominations will also be allowed to be made at the GOP meeting on Tuesday) :

Speaker

  • Cameron Sexton

Speaker Pro Tempore

  • Pat Marsh

Republican Leader

  • William Lamberth

Republican Caucus Chair

  • Jeremy Faison
  • Robin Smith

Assistant Majority Leader

  • Ron Gant

Caucus Whip

  • Johnny Garrett

Floor Leader

  • Paul Sherrell

Caucus Vice-Chair

  • Brandon Ogles

Caucus Secretary

  • vacant

Caucus Treasurer

  • Mark Cochran

Fiscal Review

  • Clark Boyd
  • Jason Zachary
  • Kelly Keisling
  • Kevin Vaughan
  • Ron Gant
  • Rush Bricken
  • Scott Cepicky

$27M in online wagers placed in first week of Tennessee sports gaming

Bettors placed $27 million worth of wagers in the first week after the launch of only sports gambling in Tennessee.

Tennessee Lottery head Rebecca Hargrove said Monday that sportsbooks paid out $23.9 million, leaving them with an adjusted gross income of $2.5 million for the period covering Nov. 1 through Nov. 8. The state’s tax on that amount totaled $509,000.

Of those tax collections, 80% will be deposited into the Lottery’s education account, 15% goes to cities and counties on a per-capita basis, and 5% is dedicated to gambling addiction treatment programs within the state Department of Mental Health.

Most of the betting action has focused on football, with 60% of wagers placed on the NFL and 40% on college games.

Four sportsbooks are operational in Tennessee: BetMGM, DraftKings, FanDuel, and Tennessee Action 24/7. Hargrove said three more are in the process of applying and hoping to get up and running by the end of the year: Churchill Downs, William Hill, and WIN Interactive.

Farmer drops challenge of Lamberth for majority leader

Reps. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville), right, and Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) speak before a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in Nashville on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

State Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville) is dropping his bid for House majority leader, according to a message to GOP colleagues obtained by the The Tennessee Journal.

Farmer cites the “fantastic” outcome of this month’s elections in his decision to give up his challenge of Rep. William Lamberth (R-Portland) for the No. 2 leadership position in the chamber. Republicans held on to all 73 House seats they came into the election with.

“A change in leadership is not what the caucus needs right now and therefore I am officially withdrawing my name,” Farmer said. “The best thing we can do is stand together in unity and support the leadership that is currently in place.”

Rep. Robin Smith of Hixson is challenging Rep. Jeremy Faison of Cosby for House Republican Caucus chair. The leadership vote is scheduled for next week.

Dear Members,

I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for the support and encouragement you have given to me over the past several weeks. I have genuinely enjoyed traveling around the state, visiting your respective districts and getting to know you all better. The Tennessee ”volunteer” spirit is alive and well in our great state!

As the election results came in, I was incredibly pleased to see that we successfully brought back all our Republican members. Congratulations to everyone! These fantastic outcomes, combined with the fact we have a significant amount of money left in the caucus, have caused me to reconsider my candidacy for majority leader. A change in leadership is not what the caucus needs right now and therefore I am officially withdrawing my name. The best thing we can do is stand together in unity and support the leadership that is currently in place.

I am looking forward to working with each of you in the 112th.

7 Republicans decline to sign state House letter demanding litigation over presidential election

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

The House Republican Caucus is getting in on the letter-writing campaign to support President Donald Trump’s lawsuits over having the outcome of the presidential election called against him.

“When there are alleged software glitches, lost or destroyed ballots, and questionable practices implemented in some areas of the country, litigation must have a day in court to decide the outcome of this election process,” according to the letter signed by 66 of 73 House members.

Just as with an earlier letter written by state Senate Republicans, there were holdouts. Seven members of the lower chamber declined to affix their signatures to the communique: Reps. Michael Curcio of Dickson, Johnny Garrett of Goodlettsville, Patsy Hazlewood of Signal Mountain, Justin Lafferty of Knoxville, Eddie Mannis of Knoxville, Bob Ramsey of Maryville, and Sam Whitson of Franklin.

Here’s the letter:

To all Tennesseans,

The Tennessee House Republican Caucus unequivocally and staunchly stands with President of the United States Donald J. Trump in demanding that all legal ballots, and only legal ballots, be counted in the 2020 presidential election.

Voting is one of the most fundamental pieces of our American republic. One person equals one vote in a system that grants justice and equality for all in deciding our government. In an election where there are alleged examples of voter fraud and malpractice, Tennessee Republicans stand with the rule of law.

We shall not accept the idea that the national media or the political elite have the official say on the winner of any election, let alone the presidency. It is up to the official systems put in place by the constitution and by the people. When there are alleged software glitches, lost or destroyed ballots, and questionable practices implemented in some areas of the country, litigation must have a day in court to decide the outcome of this election process.

We uphold the idea of protecting the rights of all Americans, liberal or conservative, to have their voices heard. After all legal ballots are counted and any illegal ballots are removed, we support confirming the victor. A peaceful transition to the next term, whether it be the incumbent or the challenger, is paramount to our system of government.

We stand with all Tennesseans in defending the integrity of elections. We are asking for the election process to have the ability to finish before prematurely declaring a winner.

It matters who governs,

/signed/
Speaker Cameron Sexton
Chairman Jeremy Faison
Leader William Lamberth
Rebecca Alexander
Charlie Baum
Clark Boyd
Rush Bricken
David Byrd
Kent Calfee
Scotty Campbell
Dale Carr
Michele Carringer
Mike Carter
Glen Casada
Scott Cepicky
Mark Cochran
John Crawford
Tandy Darby
Clay Doggett
Rick Eldridge
Andrew Farmer
Ron Gant
John Gillespie
Bruce Griffey
Rusty Grills
Curtis Halford
Mark Hall
Kirk Haston
David Hawk
Esther Helton
Gary Hicks
Tim Hicks
John Holsclaw
Dan Howell
Bud Hulsey
Chris Hurt
Curtis Johnson
Kelly Keisling
Sabi Kumar
Tom Leatherwood
Mary Littleton
Susan Lynn
Pat Marsh
Debra Moody
Jerome Moon
Brandon Ogles
Dennis Powers
John Ragan
Jay Reedy
Tim Rudd
Iris Rudder
Lowell Russell
Jerry Sexton
Paul Sherrell
Robin Smith
Mike Sparks
Bryan Terry
Chris Todd
Ron Travis
Kevin Vaughan
Todd Warner
Terri Lynn Weaver
Mark White
Ryan Williams
Dave Wright
Jason Zachary
 

Lee names Lawrence commissioner of Commerce & Insurance Department

Gov. Bill Lee speaks to reporters during budget hearings in Nashville on Nov. 9, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has promoted Carter Lawrence to commissioner of the Commerce & Insurance. Lawrence, who had served as the department’s chief deputy, succeeds Hodgen Mainda, who resigned following a sexual misconduct investigation. Mainda has denied any wrongdoing.

Lawrence previously served as interim commissioner after former agency head Julie Mix McPeak left for the private sector last year.

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

NASHVILLE – Today Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Carter Lawrence will serve in his cabinet as commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance, effective immediately.

“Carter is a proven public servant who has stewarded key priorities for the administration throughout his tenure and I’m confident he’ll continue to support Tennessee businesses and consumers with integrity,” said Gov. Lee. “We appreciate his dedication to the Department of Commerce & Insurance and look forward to his continued service.”

Lawrence currently serves as Chief Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer at the Department of Commerce & Insurance.

He has also served on Tennessee’s Economic Recovery Group throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, assisting Gov. Lee’s efforts to reboot the state’s economy.

A lifelong Tennessean and Nashville native, Lawrence earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence and a Master of Business Administration at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Prior, he graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois.

He currently resides in Nashville with his wife and three children and is a member of Nashville’s Church of the Redeemer.

24 of 27 Senate Republicans agree: Trump should challenge outcome

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

The Senate Republican Caucus is voicing support for President Donald Trump’s efforts to challenge his re-election loss to Democrat Joe Biden. A letter to this effect has been signed by 24 of 27 GOP members — all but Sens. Richard Briggs of Knoxville, Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, and Brian Kelsey of Germantown.

Briggs and Kelsey face potentially tough re-election campaigns in two years. Gardenhire just won another four-year term last week.

Here’s the letter:

Dear Tennessee Voters,

The Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus stands absolutely and unequivocally with President Donald J. Trump as he contests the unofficial results of the Presidential Election of 2020.

While this election may have been “called” by various media outlets, the election process is far from over. This election was extremely close in multiple states across the country. The coronavirus pandemic led to an extraordinary amount of absentee ballots and voting by mail. We believe that, due to unprecedented mail-in voting and razor-thin margins in multiple states, the ultimate result remains uncertain.

There have been reports of irregularities in many critical states such as Michigan, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Until these irregularities have been thoroughly investigated and court appeals have been exhausted, no winner should be declared.

This is not an unprecedented situation. In 2000, the Presidential election result was not clear until December 13. This was after several recounts and court challenges. President Trump has at least another month to contest this election through recounts and litigation, as Al Gore did. We support him in this effort to ensure the integrity of our election process is preserved.

This is an important election. There is no reason to come to a premature conclusion with this many lingering questions. While the results of most presidential elections are clear on or around election day, the results become official only when the presidential electors vote in December. President Trump has a right to challenge the results of this election until at least that point.

We support him in doing so and encourage all Tennesseans and Americans to be patient until the result of this election can be determined.

Sincerely,

/signed/

Lt. Governor Randy McNally

Jack Johnson

Ken Yager

Ferrell Haile

Paul Bailey

Mike Bell

Rusty Crowe

Becky Massey

Steve Southerland

Bo Watson

Janice Bowling

Joey Hensley

Ed Jackson

Jon Lundberg

Frank Niceley

Mark Pody

Bill Powers

Shane Reeves

Kerry Roberts

Paul Rose

John Stevens

Art Swann

Page Walley

Dawn White

Ain’t Dunn yet: Recently retired lawmaker named education adviser

House Speaker Pro Tem Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) presents school voucher legislation on May 1, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Just days after officially ending his time as a state lawmaker, former Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) has been hired as a senior adviser to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Dunn, who was first elected to the House in 1994, was the longtime sponsor of efforts to pass school voucher legislation, which finally succeeded in 2019 only to be tied up in court over constitutional questions of having the program apply only to the state’s two largest counties without the backing of voters of local legislative bodies. The new job pays $98,000 per year.

Here’s an excerpt of what The Tennessee Journal wrote on the occasion of Dunn’s retirement announcement in September 2019:

An arborist by profession, the devout Catholic and father of five has referred to himself as a “bleeding heart conservative.” While he was unafraid to champion controversial causes and challenge Democratic leaders (on his first day in office in 1995, he was the only Republican to vote against the re-election of Rep. Jimmy Naifeh as speaker), Dunn became known for his easygoing style and sense of humor. For example, when a House subcommittee was on the verge of killing his proposal to convert pre-kindergarten to a summer program in 2006, Dunn suggested the panel instead study the idea over the summer. It didn’t work, but it got a good laugh. […]

Not all of Dunn’s efforts were futile. His multi-year effort to enact a constitutional ban on gay marriage overwhelmingly passed both chambers of the General Assembly while Democrats were in charge. The measure received more than 80% of the vote in the 2006 election. Dunn was also a major supporter of a constitutional amendment approved in 2014 to restore state lawmakers’ power to restrict access to abortions.

“You can go out dead, defeated, or on your own terms. I don’t like the first two choices, so the third one’s rather appealing.”

—Dunn to WKRN-TV about his plans to retire from the House.

The Republican takeover of the General Assembly cleared the path for several controversial measures sponsored by Dunn, including 2011 bills to do away with collective bargaining rights for teachers and dial back their tenure protections. He passed a 2012 bill to protect teachers who allow students to criticize evolution and climate change. Then-Gov. Bill Haslam let the so-called “monkey bill” become law without his signature.

Dunn supported Haslam’s Improve Act to boost road funding, which included a 6-cent gas tax hike but also featured several tax cuts in other areas. Dunn was one of two Republicans to vote against a 2016 conference committee deal to eliminate the state’s Hall income tax on stock and bond earnings by 2022 on the basis that it didn’t create a replacement tax or cut other programs. […]

Dunn flirted with a bid to succeed Casada as speaker on a platform of returning a “level of boredom” to the chamber, but ultimately bowed out of the race. In announcing his retirement plans, Dunn said he wanted to leave on a “high point” of passing the voucher bill and another law to trigger a ban on abortions in Tennessee should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

Golden to seek third term as state GOP chair

Republicans hold a unity event in Franklin following the primary election on Aug. 8, 2020.

Scott Golden will seek another term as chairman of the state Republican Party following an election year in which President Donald Trump matched his Tennessee winning percentage from four years ago, former Ambassador Bill Hagerty was elected to the U.S. Senate, and Republicans lost just one seat in the General Assembly.

The former aide to then-U.S. Reps. Marsha Blackburn and Stephen Fincher was first elected to the job in 2016.

Here’s an excerpt from Golden’s letter to the party’s State Executive Committee announcing his latest bid:

Both 2021 and 2022 will get off to a fast start, including the fight to save America beginning in mid-December with the defense of the two Georgia senate seats to determine which Party has the majority in the United States Senate. After, we should all expect to be attending the inauguration of President Trump in January. County party reorganizations, county bylaws, and county calls for local primaries will be happening throughout 2021 as we prepare for redistricting and what will be a great election year of 2022. Of course, our bylaws committee has been working and will continue to refine our policies as we approach this huge election year.

Mancini won’t seek another term as chair of Tennessee Democratic Party

Mancini (Image credit: TNDP)

Mary Mancini won’t seek another term as a chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, a position she has held since 2014.

“It has been an honor of a lifetime to work with Democrats across the state and serve the Tennessee Democratic Party as chair for the last six years,” Mancini said. “I am excited to see what’s next for the Party and I look forward to helping the new chair in whatever capacity is needed.”

The move comes as state Democrats have made net gains of only one legislative seat in each of the last two election cycles despite favorable national political conditions.

Potential candidate to succeed her include state Rep. London Lamar of Memphis, Democratic National Committee member Wade Munday, and two-time congressional candidate Renee Hoyos from Knoxville.

Mancini won her most recent election by a 48-19 vote by the party’s executive committee.