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.”

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

USDA adopts new rule on TN Walking Horse ‘soring;’ Alexander objects

Just days before the Obama administration leaves office, the U. S. Department of Agriculture announced changes to rules governing enforcement of the Horse Protection Act Friday that animal rights supporters hailed as a major step toward ending the abusive practice of soring, reports The Tennessean.

The new rule will ban much of the gear used, including chains placed around horses’ ankles during training and stacks — the tall weights attached to the front hooves.

It also will force inspectors to become trained and licensed through the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

“(The USDA is) taking away the most obvious and ubiquitous tools used for soring,” said Keith Dane, senior adviser on equine protection for the Humane Society of the United States. “We’re very encouraged by the rule.”

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Supremes OK forms to simplify uncontested divorces for couples with children

News release from Administrative Office of the Courts

Nashville, Tenn. – The Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a set of plain-language forms and instructions for use in uncontested divorces between parties with minor children in an effort to simplify divorce proceedings for parties that fall into that category.  The forms will become effective January 1, 2017.

The forms are approved by the Court as universally acceptable and legally sufficient for use in all Tennessee courts pursuant to Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 52. The forms and instructions were submitted to the Court by the Access to Justice Commission.

The forms arose from the Commission’s responsibility under Supreme Court Rule 50 to develop initiatives and systemic changes to reduce barriers to access to justice and to meet the legal needs of persons whose legal needs may not be met by legal aid programs. Currently there are restrictions on the types of family law cases which may be handled by federally funded legal aid providers.

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