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TN Senate Dems Denounce Legislation Targeting Federal Pre-K Funds for Davidson, Shelby Counties

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus; February 25, 2015:

NASHVILLE – New pre-K classrooms in Davidson and Shelby counties could be in jeopardy if legislation in committee today passes the General Assembly.

“We know that early childhood education makes a tremendous difference in a child’s life,” state Rep. Antonio Parkinson said. “This legislation would target our state’s two largest school systems and take us a step backward because lawmakers want to make a political point.”

The Shelby County School Consortium and Metro Nashville Public Schools announced in October they will receive $70 million in federal funds for new pre-K classrooms. Whie the legislation is targeted at pre-K, it could have larger implications for local funding. HB 159 would require the state to back out of an agreement to receive federal funding earmarked for a county if the state did not apply on behalf of all local governments.

It will be heard in the House Local Government Subcommittee at 1:30 p.m. today.

“We need to see more pre-K classrooms in every county in Tennessee, but this legislation is not the way to do it,” Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro said. “Instead, this legislation would impose a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t reflect the needs and opportunities of different communities.”

AG Issues Opinion on Kyle Senate Seat Vacancy

Tennessee’s top lawyer has waded into the issue of how to pick nominees for November’s general election to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Jim Kyle.

Unless the executive committee members are selected at large, the candidates for Senate are to be “nominated by the members of the party’s county executive committee who represent the precincts composing Senate District 30,” according to Attorney General Bob Cooper’s opinion. The Shelby County Democratic Party’s website says that county executive committee members are “elected from each state House District in Shelby County.”

The executive committee for the county’s Republican Party has members elected both at-large and by district, according to the Shelby County GOP.

The AG released the opinion Thursday morning in response to a request from Kyle, who won a Shelby County Chancery Court judgeship on August 7, and is leaving the General Assembly after 31 years in the Senate. Kyle has said he’ll resign by the end of August.

Kyle was joined in making the inquiry to Cooper’s office by Memphis Democratic Reps. Antonio Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, who, along with Kyle’s wife, Sara, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, have shown interest in filling Kyle’s chair.

On the Republican side, former U.S. Senate candidate and Memphis millionaire radio station owner Dr. George Flinn has indicated he’s considering a run. Barring a significant upset, though, the seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands.

According to the attorney general’s opinion, any House member currently running for reelection who has won their primary, but also wishes to run for the Senate vacancy, must withdraw from the House race before the party’s executive committee meets to make their selection. However, Cooper also wrote that if the candidate withdraws from that race, the party won’t be allowed to nominate another candidate.

The opinion was sought amidst some confusion about whether or not the caucus process the county party officials wanted to use would meet statutory requirements.

While he had not yet read the opinion Thursday afternoon, the spokesman for the Tennessee Department of State, Blake Fontenay, said the Division of Elections would “defer” to the the decision of the state’s attorney, and “would act consistently with their ruling.”

Kyle Seeks AG Opinion on Filling His Senate Vacancy

The Shelby County Democratic Party is preparing to select a nominee to fill the vacancy Memphis Sen. Jim Kyle’s departure from the state Legislature will create. But the outgoing upper-chamber minority leader has concerns about how that process will unfold.

On Friday, Kyle, who is retiring after 31 years in the Senate, requested that the state attorney general issue an opinion that sorts out the legal issues surrounding how to select a nominee to run as his replacement to the General Assembly.

Kyle’s request comes on the heels of Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron, a former state senator, telling local party officials that there was confusion about the local caucus process they’ve indicated they will employ to select the nominee. Herron has concerns about the timing of the caucus, who can vote at the caucus, whether the decision would be made by a majority or plurality of votes and whether it would be a public roll-call vote or by secret ballot, according to the Commercial Appeal.

Kyle won a Shelby County judgeship on Aug. 7. and will resign from the Legislature after he’s sworn-in on Aug. 29. However, state law doesn’t provide for a government-run open primary when the timing of a vacancy in the Senate occurs so close to voters going to the polls in November. Instead, officials from the county parties are authorized to choose nominees for the general election ballot.

Democrats such as Sara Kyle, Sen. Kyle’s wife, and former state Sen. Beverly Marrero, who Kyle defeated in the 2012 primary, have expressed interest in the seat. Additionally, current Shelby County Tennessee House members Antonio “2-Shay” Parkinson and G.A. Hardaway, may also be looking to move to the General Assembly’s upper chamber.

Following the GOP-led redistricting in 2011, Marrero and Kyle found themselves opponents in the 2012 Democratic primary. After her primary loss, Marrero told TNReport that she felt “betrayed” by Kyle’s request to Republicans that he be drawn into a race against her instead of State Sen. Brian Kelsey, a Germantown Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judicial Appt. Commission Accepting Applications for Shelby Co. Chancery Court Vacancy

Press release from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts; August 14, 2014: 

The Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments is now accepting applications for the chancellor vacancy in the 30th Judicial District Chancery Court (Shelby County). The vacancy has been created by the appointment of Chancellor Kenny Armstrong to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, effective September 1.

Any interested applicant must be a licensed attorney who is at least 30 years of age, a resident of the state for five years, and a resident of the 30th Judicial District. Applicants must complete the designated application, which is available at www.tncourts.gov, and submit it to the Administrative Office of the Courts by 3 p.m. on Monday, August 25, 2014.

The Governor’s Commission for Judicial Appointments will interview all qualified applicants in Memphis at a location to be announced. The meeting will include a public hearing, during which members of the public may express their opinions about the applicants. The interview and public hearing will be open to the public.

More information and the application can be found here.

TN Economy Said to Be Improving Despite Stagnant Jobs Climate

Although Tennessee’s unemployment rate has remained unchanged for the past three months, the state’s economic outlook is nevertheless improving, driven by growth in the Middle Tennessee region.

That was the take-home message from Dr. David Penn, director of the Middle Tennessee State University Business and Economic Research Center, who delivered remarks at MTSU’s Economic Outlook Conference on Sept. 27.

“Employment is still growing by one-point-seven percent every year. Depending on what happens with government employment, it’s conceivable Tennessee could reach recovery to pre-recession levels within about 12 to 18 months, at [the current] rate of growth,” said Penn.

The Tennessee heartland continues to show economic improvement, but growth has slowed across other parts of the state, Penn said, adding that statewide sales tax collections appear to be braking. The recovery’s sluggishness is actually due in no small part to the economic woes of Tennessee’s overseas trading partners, such as Japan, China and the European Union — and in general the state’s reliance on exports, he said.

Although the number of new unemployment claims is at its lowest level since 2007, and is continuing to slowly fall, the state’s unemployment rate has in fact slowly increased over the year, holding steady at eight-and-a-half percent for the past few months, despite a decline in the number of layoffs, Penn said.

Tennessee is still among the top 10 states for high unemployment rates, he added.

But the unemployment rate will be the last number to change as a result of former workers rejoining the labor force at a faster rate than jobs are created, and should not be considered an indicator of improvement, or the lack of it, in the economy, Penn said.

“[The] labor force [number] has hardly changed over the year,” Penn said. “What’s happening here is that folks are jumping back into the labor force after jumping out in 2010, when the participation rates dropped fairly significantly. They’re jumping back in, [and] the number of jobs is just barely growing enough to absorb them, keeping the unemployment rate almost unchanged over the year.”

Additionally, the rate of growth in real earned income has been “accelerating generally” since early 2012, and has been increasing at about the same pace as the national growth rate, Penn said.

Counties with the lowest unemployment rates are for the most part located in the Middle Tennessee. Several of them are about two percentage points below the state average.

Rutherford and Williamson Counties both place high on the Bureau of Labor Statistics list comparing job and wage growth in the 334 largest counties nationwide, with Rutherford ranking sixth and Williamson coming in at 15 in job growth.

However, when it comes to wage growth, Williamson far outpaces Rutherford, coming in at eighth while Rutherford lags behind at 249.

Davidson comes in at No. 86 nationally for job growth and No. 254 for wages. Knox, Hamilton and Shelby are also included on the list, coming in ranked at Nos. 260, 193 and 186, respectively, in employment, and 12, 290 and 216 for wages.

The Metro Nashville region, which includes Murfreesboro and Franklin, ranks No. 1 in private sector job growth among the largest metropolitan areas in the United States with a growth rate of four-and-a-half percent, according to BLS statistics. Private sector job growth rates for most of the counties in the Nashville area are much higher than the Tennessee state average of about two percent, with Rutherford County’s growth rate at almost eight percent, while Williamson County’s is about five percent and Davidson is at three-and-a-half percent.

“Job creation is booming for the Nashville Metro [area],” Penn said.

TN Supreme Court Reinstates Jury-Awarded Damages Against Car Manufacturer

Press release from the Tennessee Courts System; August 30, 2013:

The Tennessee Supreme Court has reinstated a Shelby County jury’s verdict awarding damages for the injuries a six-year-old boy sustained in a car wreck.

In January of 2002, Billy Meals was riding with his father and grandfather in his grandfather’s car. Billy was in the backseat restrained with a lap belt, while the shoulder belt was tucked behind his body because it did not fit properly. Another vehicle driven at a high rate of speed and operated by a person under the influence of alcohol and cocaine struck the Meals vehicle head on.

Billy’s father and grandfather were killed. Billy survived, but sustained serious and life-changing injuries when his lap belt was propelled into his stomach, damaging his spine and internal organs. Billy became paralyzed from the waist down and could no longer perform basic functions of daily living without substantial assistance and accommodation. He required extensive medical care, including numerous surgeries and physical therapy and continues to experience medical difficulties as a result of the injuries he sustained in the wreck. It is expected he will face complications throughout the rest of his life.

In 2003, Billy’s mother filed suit on his behalf against several defendants, including the maker of his grandfather’s car, Ford Motor Company, alleging that the defective design of the seatbelt and Ford’s failure to warn of the danger caused Billy’s permanent paralysis and other injuries. The jury heard proof that Billy’s past and future medical bills and lost wages were calculated to be $4.3 million; that Billy will never walk again; and that he will suffer the effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.

A Shelby County jury returned a verdict of $43.8 million in damages, finding Ford to be 15 percent at fault, liable for $6,570,000 of the total. Ford appealed, and the Court of Appeals suggested reducing the total verdict amount from $43.8 million to $12.9 million, which would have reduced Ford’s responsibility to $1,935,000. The Court of Appeals concluded that the jury’s award of non-economic damages of $39.5 million showed sympathy and was excessive.

In a unanimous opinion, the Tennessee Supreme Court held today that the Court of Appeals applied incorrect reasoning when it concluded that the jury’s verdict was excessive. The Court engaged in its own review of the proof and concluded that the jury’s verdict was supported by evidence and was within the range of reasonableness. The Court explained that an appellate court’s review of a jury’s verdict is limited to determining whether there is material evidence to support the verdict. If there is any such evidence, the appellate court must affirm the verdict.

Accordingly, the Tennessee Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstated the jury’s verdict requiring Ford to pay $6,570,000 in damages.

Read the unanimous Opinion in Aundrey Meals ex rel. William Meals v. Ford Motor Company, authored by Justice Sharon G. Lee.

Wright Named 30th District Criminal Court Judge

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; June 28, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today appointed Glenn I. Wright as Criminal Court Judge in the 30th Judicial District, which serves Shelby County. Wright is filling the vacancy created by the death of Judge W. Otis Higgs in February.

“Glenn has a distinguished career with 30 years of experience in Shelby County, and I know he will make an outstanding judge,” Haslam said. “I am grateful for his willingness to serve the people of the 30th Judicial District.”

Wright, 57, has been in private practice in Memphis since 1992, in the Law Office of Glenn I. Wright since 2009 and at Stokes, Wilson & Wright from 1992-2009. Previously, he served as assistant district attorney in the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office from 1984-1991 and assistant public defender in the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office from 1983-1984.

“I would like to thank Gov. Haslam for the opportunity to serve the people of Shelby County in this capacity,” Wright said. “The legal community suffered a tremendous loss with the death of Judge Otis Higgs. I intend to honor his legacy with my hard work and dedication.”

Wright has handled more than 150 jury trials and has handled death penalty cases both as a prosecutor and defense attorney.

Wright received his juris doctorate from Memphis State University, now known as the University of Memphis, in 1982, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Memphis State in 1979.

He is a volunteer with the Saturday Legal Clinic program sponsored by Access to Justice. He is also a member of Cummings Street Baptist Church.

Wright and his wife, Linda, live in Memphis and have two grown children.

Haslam OKs Adding Municipal School Districts

The governor this week signed a bill pushed by suburban Memphis lawmakers that will allow outlying, often wealthier communities in Shelby county to create their own municipal school districts rather than remain in a county-wide consolidated district that also includes struggling inner-city schools.

The legislation was sponsored by Curry Todd in the House and and Majority Leader Mark Norris in the Senate, both of whom are Republicans from the Memphis suburb of Collierville. It passed 70-24 in the House and 24-5 in the Senate.

Before the law was passed, Tennessee maintained a ban on the creation of new municipal school systems in towns that didn’t already operate one. This rule, the bill’s sponsors argued, was too rigid and outdated to accommodate classroom innovation and school choice.

“This is a bill that all Tennesseans will be proud of,” Todd said during debate on the House floor. “It gives parents a choice about educating their children and where they want their children to be educated.”

Only three Democrats in the Tennessee General Assembly voted in favor of the bill. They were Sen. Reginald Tate, who serves as chairman of the Shelby County state legislative delegation, along with Reps. Antonio Parkinson, also from Memphis, and John Tidwell of New Johnsonville. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, abstained from voting in the House.

Only one Republican in each chamber voted against the legislation: Bill Dunn of Knoxville in the House and Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga in the Senate.

Dunn predicted that the change in law will result in children from outside a local school’s taxing jurisdiction attending a particular school inside of it. That situation will likely in time create resentment among parents who reside inside the district, said Dunn, and that may well lead to their demanding that the parents of children outside the district pay their own way to attend– or, alternatively, that those children be prevented from attending.

“If this does go into effect, we are going to see some problems down the road,” Dunn said just prior to the House floor vote on the measure April 15.

While the new law technically applies to the whole state, it largely grew out of a contentious decision by the Memphis school board and residents to dissolve their school district in favor of being absorbed by the county.

Many residents in outlying communities balked at the idea of having to help support Memphis’s poor-performing public schools and worried that stretching funds to include them would lower the quality of schools already in the district. The bill allowing towns to create their own, separate school systems was seen as a way to address those concerns.

But that prospect doesn’t sit well with some lawmakers, especially the largely Democratic delegation from the city of Memphis.

One such outspoken critic was state Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, who spoke to TNReport shortly after the bill passed the upper chamber earlier this month.

The law, Kyle said, would “lead to a balkanization in all our counties where economic areas that are superior to other economic areas will want to have their schools systems all to themselves. Now I’ll be looking at a county with seven school systems and I don’t see how you have any unity that way.”

Kyle, the Senate minority leader, brushed of the call from supporters to increase flexibility and choice. “That is just some effort to justify the reality — the reality being people in the suburbs not wanting to be with people in the city,” he said.

Now that the governor has signed the bill into law, municipalities can start the process of creating their own school systems which includes holding local referendums and meeting certain readiness requirements from the State Board of Education.

Haslam Will Sign Ban on Local Wage-and-Benefits Mandates

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Monday that he plans to put his signature on the “Tennessee Wage Protection Act,” a piece of legislation that would stop municipalities from setting their own minimum and prevailing wage requirements on businesses.

The issue posed a bit of an ideological conundrum for the Republican governor by forcing him to choose between preserving local control and pushing a business-friendly agenda. Haslam said trying to maintaining a consistent, hospitable business climate across Tennessee took precedence in this instance.

“I do intend to sign that,” Haslam said of the measure. “It’s a very fine line for me. I think the argument of the bill sponsor was that there’s implications beyond just that municipality that should be taken into consideration, like I said, and in this case I do intend to sign it.”

House Bill 501, carried by GOP Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, is primarily aimed at Nashville and Shelby County, both of which have stricter rules than the state regarding wages, family leave and insurance benefits for companies that operate in those jurisdictions or pursue local government contracts.

During floor debate on the bill last month, Casada argued that making companies in certain municipalities pay their workers higher wages for things like road construction would drive up the cost of similar work statewide. While local control remains a popular theme amongst Republicans in the General Assembly, the Franklin lawmaker said that, in this case, “these are issues best left up to the state and federal governments, not local government.”

2 Veterans Courts Receive Grants from TN Legal Education Commission

Press release from the Tennessee Courts System; April 8, 2013:

Two Tennessee veterans courts are the recipients of $40,000 in total grants from the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education & Specialization. The move is a result of an ongoing effort on several fronts to address the issues facing veterans and service members, particularly in light of the ongoing drawdown.

The Tennessee General Assembly recently passed a resolution urging the Tennessee Supreme Court to educate Tennessee’s judges regarding the importance of justice-involved veterans and service members and to take appropriate measures to support the creation of new veterans treatment courts and dockets in the state.

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge; Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville; and Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge all have been instrumental in supporting efforts to champion veterans treatment courts in Tennessee. These funds will further those efforts.

The CLE Commission has earmarked a total of $100,000 for use as an incentive for courts throughout the state to seek education, training, and administrative support for these specialized courts and dockets serving veterans.

“Our organization is privileged to have the opportunity to support local courts and communities in providing these much-needed services to local veterans,” said Judy Bond-McKissack, Executive Director of the CLE Commission.

Veterans courts are specialized problem-solving courts that go beyond traditional judicial methods. They are long-term, judicially supervised, multi-phase courts designed to assist persons who have served (or are currently serving) in the military, who have been charged with a criminal offense, who are at high risk for reoffending absent intensive intervention, and who have significant mental health and/or substance abuse issues. Essentially, a veterans treatment court is a veteran-specific hybrid of a drug treatment court and a mental health treatment court.

In 2012, at the request of the Tennessee General Assembly, the Administrative Office of the Courts conducted an extensive study regarding the feasibility of creating a statewide system of veterans treatment courts.

The AOC found that allowing individual courts flexibility in handling the needs of the community was key to the success of the courts. The study went on to say that the most effective and cost-efficient method of assisting the largest number of men and women who have served this country is to permit each judicial district to incorporate the veteran-specific services into the court system’s existing framework, including the existing drug and mental health treatment courts.

“The Judiciary of the State of Tennessee is especially committed to seeking solutions for those within the criminal justice system who have given a portion of their lives to the service of their country,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Gary R. Wade.

The Supreme Court, with the encouragement of the General Assembly, recently launched a task force charged with creating a veterans court model for future use in trial and general sessions courts throughout the state. Many of the members of the task force are judges who are active members of the National Guard.

Montgomery and Shelby counties are the only two Tennessee counties that have a freestanding veterans treatment court, and each will receive $20,000 from the CLE Commission to support training, operating and administrative costs.

“The CLE Commission believes this funding provides the support that is much needed to further the efforts of these very important segments of our judiciary,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia A. Clark, who serves as the Supreme Court’s liaison to the commission.

The Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education & Specialization monitors CLE requirements and administers the specialization program for attorneys in the state of Tennessee. The funds are from administrative and non-compliance fees the commission has collected over several years. Members of the commission are appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court.