constitution

What’s next for the proposed super chancery court?

The state Capitol on March 16, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The two chambers of the General Assembly are advancing competing versions of a bill seeking to bypass the chancery court in Nashville as the venue for constitutional challenges. The Senate version, which passed 27-6, would create a new super chancery court made up of three judges elected statewide. The House voted 68-23 on Wednesday to establish a special court of appeals comprised of three judges who would stand for retention elections.

The differing approaches appear destined for a conference committee to try to work out the differences. But it’s unclear where the twain might meet.

The Senate measure is sponsored by Judiciary Chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville), a longtime advocate of popular elections for judges. As is Speaker Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and Finance Chair Bo Watson (R-Hixson). So backing off of the contested election element would be a tough bill to swallow. But after the House decided to go with the appeals court concept, the lower chamber appears locked into the idea replace-retain elections for members of the new bench.

A layer of unease about the bill is that the governor would appoint the members of both versions of the new court, which has led to criticism that he would be able to stack the bench to favor his own legislative initiatives that have either already run into trouble in court, or could do so in the future.

One way to lift that concern would be hold open races for the judicial seats in August 2022 rather than have the new chancellors first be appointed by the governor. But that would only work for the Senate bill, as the House measure by definition involves the appointment of judges.

UPDATE: After extensive closed-door huddling, the Senate has retreated on its demand for electing statewide judges. Under a compromise, the chancellor who lands a legal challenge of constitutional or redistricting matters would be joined by two other chancellors from the remaining two grand divisions to preside over the case.

Senate deals setback to effort to block local governments from suing state

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

The Senate on Monday rejected a proposal by Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) to ban local governments from filing lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of laws passed by the General Assembly.

Kelsey said his bill would only apply to lawsuits filed after the bill went into effect. But he cited recent legal challenges over school vouchers, voter ID, and funding for large school districts as examples of litigation he is seeking to outlaw.

Kelsey’s bill went off the rails when Republicans like Sens. Ken Yager of Kingston and Page Walley of Bolivar began questioning why local governments should be prevented from challenging the constitutionality of measures that may bring them fiscal harm.

Walley noted that when he was a state House member in the 1990s, 77 small school districts successfully sued the state for more equal education funding. Kelsey argued that instead of the lawsuit filed by the late Lewis Donelson, the small school districts should have pursued their aims by “talking to the legislature.”

Walley agreed it would have been better for the General Assembly to act on its own accord, but recalled “an intransigence” on the part of lawmakers that prevented a solution at the time.

The vote on Kelsey’s amendment failed 14-14, with three Republicans and two Democrats missing the vote. Kelsey asked to move his bill to Wednesday, at which point he is expected to introduce another amendment seeking similar restrictions.

Kelsey’s amendment failed on a 14-14 vote on April 26, 2021.

New Library and Archives building to open April 13

A rendering of the Tennessee State Library and Archives Building (Image credit: Tennessee Secretary of State’s Office)

The new Tennessee State Library and Archives building is scheduled to open on April 13. Secretary of State Tre Hargett is organizing a parade for the transfer of Tennessee first three constitutions to the new facility on Monday.

The $124 million structure — which some critics have dubbed the Taj Ma-Hargett — has been under construction since 2017. It is located across from the new Tennessee State Museum on Bicentennial Mall.

The Archives are under the jurisdiction of the legislative branch of government, while the museum falls under the aegis of the executive branch.

Here’s the release:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee State Library and Archives, TSLA, is scheduled to open to the public on April 13, 2021, in its new location on the northeast corner of the Bicentennial Mall at the intersection of Rep. John Lewis Way N. and Jefferson St.

“It is an exciting time for TSLA as we are only weeks away from opening the doors to this important resource for our great state,” said Secretary of State Tre Hargett. “This state-of-the-art facility will ensure Tennessee’s history will be properly preserved and accessible for generations to come.”

After more than a year of preparation, TSLA staff started moving and installing collections and exhibits in the new building at the beginning of February.

“Countless hours of planning by our staff has gone into carefully and thoughtfully transporting our historical documents, manuscripts and collections,” said Chuck Sherrill, Tennessee State Librarian and Archivist.

“Thanks to the dedication of our staff and the professionalism of our moving contractor, most of the 500,000 books and 40,000 boxes of archival material in our collection will be available for Tennesseans when we open our doors in April.”

The new 165,000 square foot facility includes a climate-controlled chamber for safely storing historic books and manuscripts with a space-saving robotic retrieval system. A new blast freezer will allow TSLA staff to help save materials damaged by water or insects following floods and other disasters. The new facility also has classrooms for student groups and meeting space for training librarians and archivists.

The larger and more technologically advanced building is a major upgrade from TSLA’s current 1950s era home. The new facility has the much needed space to properly house collections, improved climate controls and increased handicapped access. The extra space and efficiency will increase TSLA’s capacity by nearly 40 percent from 542,700 to 759,500 items.

The 110th General Assembly approved funding in 2017 and 2018 for the new facility. Although the project timeline was adjusted slightly after the March 2020 tornados, construction remained within the $123.8 million budget.

A ribbon cutting event will be held on April 12, with virtual viewing details forthcoming. The new building will open to the public with limited capacity due to COVID-19 safe precautions on April 13.

For the latest information about the new building opening, follow the TSLA’s social media channels: Facebook: Tennessee State Library and Archives and Instagram: @tnlibarchives along with the Secretary of State’s Twitter account: @SecTreHargett.

About the Tennessee State Library and Archives
The office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett oversees the operations of the Tennessee State Library and Archives. By law, it is required to preserve Tennessee’s legal and civic history by housing the archives of state government and collections of records from families, churches, businesses and organizations. TSLA is home to many notable historic documents including Tennessee’s Constitutions, letters from Tennessee’s three presidents, Civil War diaries, records of 55 past Governors of the State and original records and maps of the State of Franklin. The collections include copies of virtually every book published about Tennessee and Tennesseans. Original documents from court cases and legislation along with audio recordings of legislative proceedings since 1955 are preserved by TSLA. Copies of the records from every Tennessee courthouse and all surviving Tennessee newspapers can also be viewed in the library’s collections.

Tennessee AG joins effort to block Equal Rights Amendment

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 is joining four counterparts in Republican states in trying to block an effort to revive the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Virginia lawmakers last month ratified the amendment stating that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Supporters argue that Virginia is the 38th state to approve of the language, meeting the requirement that three-fourths of states agree to amend the Constitution.

Opponents point to the a ratification deadline set by Congress was 1979 and that it was later extended only to 1982. Those deadlines are unenforceable, according to a lawsuit filed by Virginia, Illinois, and Nevada.

Tennessee lawmakers approved the amendment in 1972, but voted to rescinded their action in 1974.

Read the release from Slatery’s office after the jump:

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