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Lee: Unclear when voucher program can get off the ground following high court ruling

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his State of the State Address on Jan. 31, 2022. (Erik Schelzig)

Republican Gov. Bill Lee is hailing the Supreme Court’s decision upholding school vouchers but says “a lot of steps” are still required before the program allowing parents in Nashville and Shelby County to spend taxpayer dollars on private school tuition can go live.

“Once we determine the speed with which the court will make its final decisions, then we can move forward with the particulars to make sure this works and fits, and how it is that we roll it out,” The Associated Press quoted the governor as saying on Friday.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 3-2 decision that the voucher program doesn’t violate the state constitution’s home rule protections, which prevent the General Assembly from passing bills targeted at specific counties without local buy-in. The voucher law affects school districts — which aren’t covered by the home rule provision — and not the counties that fund them, the high court ruled.

Despite the voucher program being frozen since 2019, the Lee administration has included a recurring $29 million item in the budget to cover its costs in the event legal challenges were turned back. But the money has been dedicated toward other priorities, including for the spending plan for the budget year beginning on July 1.

It remains to be seen how much appetite lawmakers have to revisit the voucher question. Of the 51 House members who voted for the final version of the bill in 2019 (just one more than the constitutional minimum), only 37 are up for re-election this fall. Here’s the list of voucher backers who will no longer be around next year:

Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah). Died of pancreatic cancer in May 2021.

Glen Casada (R-Franklin). Not running again this year. Lost bid for Williamson County clerk earlier this month.

Michael Curcio (R-Dickson). Not running again this year.

John DeBerry (D-Memphis). Lost re-election bid as an independent in 2020 after state Democrats decided he couldn’t run in their primary. Now in the Lee administration.

Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville). Didn’t run again in 2020. Now in the Lee administration.

Mark Hall (R-Cleveland). Running for state Senate this year.

Matthew Hill (R-Jonesbough). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Timothy Hill (R-Blountville). Didn’t run again in 2020. Lost bid for Congress.

Andy Holt (R-Dresden). Didn’t run again in 2020. Now in the Lee administration.

Bill Sanderson (R-Kenton). Stepped down in August 2019.

Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station). Not running again this year.

Robin Smith (R-Hixson). Resigned in March after pleading guilty to participating in a kickback scheme.

Rick Tillis (R-Lewisburg). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Micah Van Huss (R-Gray). Lost Republican primary in 2020.

Two other representatives abstained when the vote was initially recorded, but later changed asked the clerk to have their votes changed to yes. The moves are considered a formality because they only be accepted if it doesn’t change the outcome. Neither won’t feature in the next General Assembly:

Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville). Didn’t run again in 2020.

Brandon Ogles (R-Franklin). Not running again this year.

Lawmakers confirm Campbell appointment to state Supreme Court

A joint convention of the General Assembly on Thursday approved Gov. Bill Lee’s nomination of Sarah K. Campbell to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

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

Sarah Keeton Campbell is officially the newest justice on the Tennessee Supreme Court. Justice Campbell was confirmed today during a joint session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the final step in the appointment process, and took the oath of office.  She was nominated by Governor Bill Lee on January 12 after being one of three candidates out of 11 applicants recommended by the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointments.

Justice Campbell fills the vacancy created by the passing of Justice Cornelia A. Clark on September 24, 2021. She is Governor Lee’s first Supreme Court appointment and the second justice to navigate the confirmation process that was enacted in 2016 after Tennessee voters approved a ballot initiative in 2014.

“Sarah has created a truly remarkable and unique career focused almost exclusively on appellate work with a strong passion for public service,” Chief Justice Roger A. Page said. “The Court is thrilled to welcome her to the bench as a colleague. She is accomplished and determined, yet humble and personable, and I am sure she will serve the citizens of Tennessee well.” 

Strong Tennessee Values

Justice Campbell was born in LaFollette in Campbell County.  Her extended family still lives in Campbell County and Scott County, where her grandparents made their living working on farms, in factories, and on the railroad. Her father was the first in her family to attend college, and the family moved to Rogersville in Scott County when Justice Campbell was beginning middle school. She graduated from Cherokee High School in Rogersville, where her parents and brother, a local attorney and municipal judge, still reside.

“My parents and grandparents taught me to work hard, live with integrity, and treat everyone with fairness and respect,” Justice Campbell said. “I am proud of my rural East Tennessee roots.  The values I learned there shaped who I am today.”

Justice Campbell attended the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on a full-tuition merit scholarship and was recognized as a Torchbearer, the university’s highest student honor.  While a student at UT, she was elected president of the Student Government Association; served as chairperson of the Undergraduate Academic Council; and was a founding member of the Baker Scholars Program. She graduated from the College Scholars program with emphases in political science, educational policy, and Spanish.

“I did not have any lawyers in my family, but I was always drawn to public service,” Justice Campbell said. “I developed an interest in the law while at UT and decided to attend law school with the aim of using my legal education to improve my community.”

Justice Campbell was awarded a full-tuition merit scholarship to Duke University School of Law, where she served as managing editor of the Duke Law Journal, was a member of moot court, and participated in the Appellate Litigation Clinic. She graduated magna cum laude and in the top 10 percent of her class. While at Duke, she also earned a master’s degree in Public Policy.

A Focus On Appellate Law

Justice Campbell quickly realized the intense legal research, analysis and writing required when cases are appealed after trial or an initial court decision was her niche.  After graduating from law school, she secured a federal clerkship with Judge William H. Pryor Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. That position was followed by a clerkship with Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. on the Supreme Court of the United States. There are approximately 36 U.S. Supreme Court clerkships each year, and obtaining a clerkship is extremely competitive with candidates with the highest credentials from the most prestigious law schools applying.

“My clerkships were formative experiences. I was fortunate to clerk for two of the finest jurists in the country. Those experiences allowed me to refine and strengthen my research and writing skills and gain an appreciation for the limited yet important role of a judge in our constitutional structure,” Justice Campbell said. “I found it very rewarding to work on the complicated legal issues that came before the appellate courts.  It was then that I developed an interest in becoming a judge.”

After practicing in Washington D.C. at Williams & Connolly, LLP, Justice Campbell felt the time was right to come home to Tennessee. For the past six years, she has worked in the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, most recently as the Associate Solicitor General and Special Assistant to the Attorney General. During that time, she has represented her home state in both federal and state appellate courts, handling a wide range of criminal, civil, and constitutional law issues.

“Serving on the Tennessee Supreme Court is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Justice Campbell said. “I thank Governor Lee for putting his trust in me to serve Tennesseans in this capacity, and I also thank the General Assembly for confirming me to the position. I do not take the task before me lightly. The job of a judge is to decide cases fairly and impartially by applying neutral, objective principles.  That is how I will approach each case that comes before me.”

Family & Community Involvement

Justice Campbell met her husband Scott while they were students at the University of Tennessee. The couple currently resides in Nashville and have three children.   Mr. Campbell has dedicated his career to public education, serving both as a teacher and principal.  The family belongs to Christ Presbyterian Church.

Justice Campbell is a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, the TBA Leadership Law Alumni Association, the American Law Institute, and the Federalist Society.  She has been an invited speaker to dozens of continuing legal education courses focused on updates and reviews on state and federal appellate law.

A public investiture ceremony will be planned for the spring.

Read up on your state Supreme Court finalists here

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

After two days of interviews, the Governor’s Council for Judicial Appointment whittled down the list of nine applicants to three for Gov. Bill Lee to choose from.

You can read the finalists’ applications here:

Sarah Campbell, associate solicitor general and special assistant to state Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

Kristi M. Davis, state appeals judge.

Neal McBrayer, state appeals judge.

The vacancy was created by the passing of Justice Connie Clark in September.

State Supreme Court agrees to hear appeal over school voucher law

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The State Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear an appeal of lower court rulings that Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher to be unconstitutional.

Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin ruled in May that the law violated home rule provisions of the Tennessee Constitution by applying to only Nashville and Shelby County school districts without seeking support from either voters or local legislative bodies. The state sought a direct appeal to the Supreme Court but the justices declined to bypass the intermediate Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld Martin’s original ruling.

Attorneys for Nashville and Shelby County governments argued the Supreme Court shouldn’t take up the appeal because the defendants hadn’t brought new arguments about the case. The state maintains home rule protections shouldn’t apply because school boards are separate from the operations of county governments.

The Supreme Court case will be closely watched as home rule disputes are only expected to multiply as rural-urban tensions largely match the partisan divide in the state.

Here’s a primer on the history of the home rule amendment from The Tennessee Journal in May 2020:

The subject of extending greater home rule powers was the subject of the greatest debate at a 1953 constitutional convention, but opposition failed to materialize at the ballot box as the change was approved with over 70% of the vote. The overwhelming approval reflected a sentiment summed up in an editorial in the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time that the change was needed to “make it tough on city charter meddlers in Nashville.”

State Supreme Court Justice A.B. Neil told the delegates to the constitutional convention the home rule question would be key to their deliberations. The General Assembly had handed down “too much unwise local legislation” over the years, the justice said, adding that many of those acts had “no merit other than to serve the basest ends in partisan politics.”

In a historical twist, the president of the 1953 constitutional convention was Prentice Cooper, a former governor who opposed the home rule amendment. Cooper, who died in 1969, was the father of Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who has led the charge to dismantle the voucher law on the basis of home rule violations.