Supreme Court

Supreme Court: Reversal on vulnerable voters makes absentee balloting ruling unnecessary

The state Supreme Court has vacated a lower court’s temporary injunction allowing anyone fearful of contracting COVID-19 to cast absentee ballots after the state reversed itself to say it considers people with an underlying vulnerability to the virus — or those caring for someone who does — to be eligible to vote by mail.

State Election Coordinator Mark Goins told Associated Press reporter Jonathan Mattise in May that “in consultation with the Attorney General’s office the fear of getting ill does not fall under the definition of ill.”

But under questioning during oral arguments in the Supreme Court last week, Janet Kleinfelder of the AG’s office conceded that voters’ underlying conditions or of those living with them would be allowed to vote by mail.

“If the voter has made that decision, then yes, they may vote absentee,” Kleinfelter said.

Justice Cornelia Clark wrote in the majority opinion:

At oral argument before this Court, the State conceded that, under its interpretation […] persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it (“persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19”), as well as those who are caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, already are eligible to vote absentee by mail. We hold that injunctive relief is not necessary with respect to such plaintiffs and persons. We instruct the State to ensure that appropriate guidance, consistent with the State’s acknowledged interpretation, is provided to Tennessee registered voters with respect to the eligibility of such persons to vote absentee by mail in advance of the November 2020 election.

The high court said the lower court erred in extending the order to people who have no specific vulnerability to COVID-19.

Supreme Court turns down state’s effort to halt expanded absentee voting amid pandemic

The Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to immediately halt a judge’s order that the state must allow any voters concerned about being infected by COVID-19 to cast their ballots by mail. But the state’s highest court did agree to directly take up the full legal challenge of the ruling, bypassing the intermediate Court of Appeals.

Nashville Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle earlier this month found the state’s position that fear of coronavirus infection was not a sufficient reason to request an absentee ballot presented an “unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution.”

When state election officials responded by creating a new category on the application form for those worried about COVID-19 rather than have it covered by the existing medical exception, Lyle called out the state for failing to adhere to her original order.

“Shame on you for not following that procedure and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said in a recent hearing.

While the expedited appeal will speed up the state’s legal challenge, it appears unlikely the high court will decide the case before the Aug. 6 primary. Absentee ballots are already being sent out, and in-person early voting begins on July 17.

Hagerty, Sethi denounce Supreme Court decision blocking Trump from ending DACA

Then-Gov. Bill Haslam, Rep. Mark White, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire pose for a photo in March 2018 with supporters of offering instate tuition for students whose parents brought them to country illegally as children. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Republican U.S. Senate candidates Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi are denouncing a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that President Donald Trump can’t immediately dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program from children brought to the country without legal authorization.

The opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, a Republican appointee. He was joined by the high court’s four more liberal members.

Here’s the statement from Hagerty:

The Supreme Court’s decision to prevent the Trump Administration from dismantling DACA, an immigration policy created via Executive Order by the Obama Administration is appalling and another reminder as to why we need to confirm more constitutionalist judges to the federal bench. We need justices and judges who will not legislate from the bench, but respect the Constitution. Joe Biden and a Democrat Senate majority would confirm nominees who will get it wrong every time. In the Senate, I will support constitutionalist judges and work with President Trump to fix our broken immigration system and build the wall at our southern border.

And here is Sethi:

This is a travesty: My parents waited seven years to immigrate to America legally, and they gave back to the community here in Tennessee. It’s incredibly offensive to me as a first generation American to see other people break the law get benefits, and their children be rewarded for it. Congress needs to fix the system by building the wall, ending chain biased migration, and pausing all legal immigration until we get our economy back on track.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Marville), the man Hagerty is hoping to replace, struck a different tone about the decision:

The Supreme Court’s decision will provide temporary relief to current DACA recipients, but it is clear to me that Congress must act to fix our broken immigration system. Congress should work together to achieve a permanent result both for DACA recipients and border security, and any other improvements to legal immigration that we can agree on—this means something the Senate and the House can pass and that the president will support.

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Supreme Court decision lauded by Nashville LGBT Chamber

The Nashville LGBT Chamber is lauding the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that employers can’t discriminate against gay and transgender employees.

Here’s the full release:

Nashville, TN (June 15, 2020) –  In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court has now ensured no employer has the right to discriminate against a person because of their sexual orientation or gender identity through the expansion of Title VII. The ruling grants federal job protections to gay, lesbian, and transgender workers to further advance the cause of LGBTQ rights. Conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s four liberal justices in the majority. 

“This decision reminds us that change is possible when we pursue it from every avenue possible, advocating at the legislature, challenging discriminatory legislation through the courts, organizing and protesting in the community and voting for pro LGBT candidates in every election.” said Joe Woolley, CEO.  “We are particularly proud that even traditionally conservative justices agree that LGBT rights are human rights now enshrined in our laws.”

Business will continue to be the catalyst for continued advancement and positive change for our diverse and marginalized communities. Our 500+ members understand the economic imperative of inclusion and diversity within their businesses and through their policies.  

Woolley continued, “After marriage equality 5 years ago next week, many LGBT and ally people thought the movement for equality was over. They did not realize that you could be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday in over half the country. 28 states had little or no workplace protections for the LGBT community. About 4.5% of the U.S. population, or roughly 11 million people, identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer; 88% of them are employed.” 

The LGBT community is a vital part of the American economy and deserves equal treatment under the law. This decision is a shining light in an otherwise tumultuous climate. This is a victory for our community and exemplifies the work of organizations like the Nashville LGBT Chamber. We will continue to advocate for LGBT rights in the workplace. 

 

Supreme Court won’t intervene in voucher appeal

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his second State of the State address in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The Tennessee Supreme Court won’t reach down to hear appeal of Nashville judge’s ruling that Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher law is unconstitutional. The state’s highest court also said it won’t lift injunction on implementing the program while the legal challenge is underway.

That means the case stays with the intermediate Court of Appeals, which isn’t scheduled to hear oral arguments until school is scheduled to resume in August.

Here’s the order:

On May 20, 2020, Intervening Defendants Ciera Calhoun, Greater Praise Christian Academy, Alexandria Medlin, Sensational Enlightenment Academy Independent School, and David Wilson, Sr. filed in this Court a motion to assume jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d). On that same date, Intervening Defendants Natu Bah, Star Brumfield, Bria Davis, and Builiguissa Diallo filed a motion to assume jurisdiction. On May 21, 2020, Defendants the Tennessee Department of Education, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in her official capacity as Education Commissioner, and Governor Bill Lee, in his official capacity, filed a motion to assume jurisdiction. On May 21, 2020, Defendants the Tennessee Department of Education, Commissioner Penny Schwinn, in her official capacity as Education Commissioner, and Governor Bill Lee, in his official capacity also filed a motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction pursuant to Rule 7(a) of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure and Rule 62.08 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. On May 29, 2020, Roxanne McEwen, David P. Bichell, Terry Jo Bichell, Lisa Mingrone, Claudia Russell, Inez Williams, Sheron Davenport, Heather Kenney, Elise McIntosh, Tracy O’Connor, and Apryle Young (collectively the “McEwen Plaintiffs”) filed a motion for leave to file an amicus brief and tendered their brief pursuant to Rule 31 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure.

The McEwen Plaintiffs’ motion for leave to file an amicus brief is GRANTED, and the brief lodged by them shall be accepted as filed as of the date of this order.

The Court has carefully considered each of the motions to assume jurisdiction, the motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction, Plaintiffs’ responses in opposition to those motions, and the brief of the amicus. Based upon the current totality of the circumstances, including the relevant timeline and the procedural posture of this case, the Court concludes that this case does not warrant the extraordinary action of the exercise of the Court’s authority to assume jurisdiction. As a result, the motions to assume jurisdiction must be DENIED. For similar reasons, the Court further concludes that the motion for review of orders denying a stay of injunction is DENIED.

TN Supreme Court: Evictions can resume next week, jury trials in July

The state Supreme Court has decreed that eviction proceedings can once again be heard starting on Monday and that jury trials can resume in July.

Here’s the full release from the state’s highest court:

The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an Order that extends the judicial state of emergency and eases restrictions imposed by previous court orders. These changes include allowing jury trials to begin after July 3 with strict protocols; allows eviction cases to be heard beginning June 1; ends deadline extensions; and allows local judicial districts to continue operating under their approved plans for expanded in-person proceedings. The Order continues to encourage remote proceedings via video or audio conference whenever possible.  

Today’s Order allows jury trials to begin after July 3, 2020, if strict social distancing and capacity protocols can be met and CDC guidelines are followed. The Order also provides for six-person juries in civil cases unless a twelve-person jury is specifically requested by a party.  

Deadlines in court rules, statutes, and administrative rules that were previously extended until May 31 are extended only until June 5. After this date, the Supreme Court does not anticipate any further extension of deadlines. “The point of extending deadlines was to give judges, attorneys, and litigants time to adjust to this new normal and weather this storm a bit,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “But, extensions cannot go on indefinitely. Judges, of course, can extend deadlines on an individual basis when permissible.”

The Order also lifts the broad restrictions on evictions. As of June 1, eviction cases may be heard if the landlord states under penalty of perjury that the action is not subject to the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act.

The Supreme Court issued an order on April 24 that allowed judicial districts to expand in-person proceedings if the Supreme Court approved a plan submitted by the district addressing such issues as social distancing, limiting access to the courtroom, and other strategies designed to limit the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible. The majority of judicial districts are now operating under those approved plans, which are available on the TNCourts.gov website. Judicial districts that did not submit a plan are continuing to operate under the parameters set forth in the March 25 Order. 

“For now, each court will continue to operate under their approved plan or the March 25 Order,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said. “Our top priority throughout the pandemic has been ensuring courts remain open and accessible for Tennesseans. We have worked diligently with local officials to ensure that emergency orders of protection, bond hearings, custody hearings, and other critical matters can be heard promptly. We have had to balance access to the courts with the health and safety of all participants and workers in the judicial system.

Over the past ten weeks, courts across Tennessee have continued to utilize technology to keep courts open and accessible. Dozens of courts have held their first remote proceedings via video conference, and proceedings have been live-streamed to YouTube for the first time. For example, the Tennessee Supreme Court held oral arguments via video conference twice, including a live-stream, the Court of Appeals held oral arguments via video conference, and the 20th Judicial District Chancery Court conducted hearings in a school voucher case via video conference over multiple days. In total, over 700 video proceedings have taken place on Zoom licenses managed by the Administrative Office of the Courts since the middle of April. Some counties and individual judges have also purchased their own video conferencing tools that are not managed by the AOC.

“While there certainly are some challenges, many judges are finding a lot of efficiencies and advantages to deploying remote proceedings in certain circumstances,” Chief Justice Bivins said. “Sometimes great innovation comes out of crisis and that is what is happening across the Tennessee judiciary.”

As with the previous Orders related to Covid-19, today’s Order applies to all state and local courts across Tennessee, including state circuit and chancery courts, general sessions courts, juvenile courts, and municipal courts.

The Order is available here

Tennessee Supreme Court to livestream oral arguments

The Tennessee Supreme Court plans to livestream oral arguments for the first time on Tuesday. While audio and video of proceedings have been posted online in the past, it was with a delay of up to two days.

Because of limitations on in-person attendance in the courtroom due to COVID-19, the state’s highest court is now broadcasting the hearings on its YouTube page in real time.

Here’s the release from the courts:

The Tennessee Supreme Court remains committed to keeping Tennessee courts open while protecting the health and safety of all parties.  Due to the continued concerns regarding COVID-19, the cases set for the May 19, 2020 docket will be heard by livestream video conferencing.  This is one of the many efforts the Court has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic to prioritize the health and well-being of all litigants, attorneys, judges, and employees of the court system. 

(Details of the cases after the jump)

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Supreme Court declines to take up appeal of abortion amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a ruling that upheld the outcome of 2014 vote on a constitutional amendment to give state lawmakers more power to restrict abortion rights in Tennessee, The Tennessean reports.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January upheld the state’s tabulating method. The Tennessee Constitution declares amendments require not just a simple majority, but a “majority of all the citizens of the state voting for governor.”

Plaintiffs argued that only ballots cast by those who had voted in both the gubernatorial election and amendment referendum should be counted (rather than the state’s longtime standard of using the equivalent number of votes).

 

Former Chief Justice Anderson passes away at 85

Former Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice E. Riley Anderson passed away last week at the age of 85. He served on the state’s highest court from 1990 to 2006.

“I guess other people are going to select how you’re going to be remembered,” Anderson once said. “But I’d like to be remembered as somebody who was fair and honest and worked hard at the job.”

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Supreme Court chief thanks legislators for authorizing three new judges

Press release from the Administrative Office of the Courts

Nashville, Tenn. ­– The Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation this session funding three new judge positions in Tennessee. The new positions will be in the state’s 19th Judicial District, which serves Montgomery and Robertson counties; the 16th Judicial District, which includes Rutherford and Cannon counties; and the 21st Judicial District, which includes Hickman, Lewis, Perry, and Williamson counties.

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