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TN Supremes to Decide if Death Row Inmates Can Challenge Possibility of Electrocution

Press release from the Administrative Office of the Tennessee Courts; February 13, 2015:

The Tennessee Supreme Court today has agreed to decide whether a death row inmate can properly challenge the constitutionality of the possibility of electrocution as a method of execution.

The lawsuit by 34 death row inmates challenges several aspects of Tennessee’s death penalty protocol. In an order filed today, the Court agreed to hear the State’s request to dismiss the plaintiffs’ challenge to electrocution as a method of execution, asserting that none of the plaintiffs is subject to execution by electrocution at this time.

Although there has not been a final decision in the case at the trial court level, some elements of the lawsuit have already been subject to appellate review. In addition to this claim regarding electrocution, the Supreme Court is considering whether the identities of those involved in the execution process – including medical examiners, pharmacists, and physicians – must be revealed to the death row inmates as a part of the discovery process.

The case will be heard by the Supreme Court in oral arguments on May 6 in Knoxville.

A copy of the order can be viewed here.

Justice Bivins Calls for ‘Yes on 2’ at TN Farm Bureau Federation Conference

Press release from the Vote Yes on 2 Campaign; August 22, 2014:

Nashville, Tenn. – Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins, speaking at the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation Annual Presidents Conference on August 14, urged those in attendance to Vote YES on 2 when they go to polls this fall. The Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation is also urging the passage of Amendment 2.

Amendment 2 keeps the best parts of our current system by continuing to trust the Governor to appoint the most qualified persons as appellate judges, while adding a new layer of accountability by having our elected representatives in the legislature confirm or reject the Governor’s appointees. Most importantly, Amendment 2 protects the right of Tennesseans to vote to keep or fire the judges at the end of their respective terms.

Justice Bivins said Amendment 2 brings important new clarity and accountability to the process of selecting Tennessee’s Supreme Court and appellate court judges. But he warned that failure to pass Amendment 2 could open the door to costly statewide judicial races, full of negative advertising largely funded by out of state special interests.

“You got a taste in these past weeks with the negative advertisements and the mailers.” Justice Bivins said. “But you saw only the tip of the iceberg of what can happen.”

“Our Farm Bureau policy supports an independent and qualified judiciary,” said Lacy Upchurch, President of the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation. “Our grassroots members have directed us to work to ensure partisan politics and campaign fundraising do not influence the selection and retention of judges. We support the Yes on 2 efforts and believe passage will provide a judicial system of which we can all be proud.”

Amendment 2 enjoys strong support from a diverse and bipartisan group of top leaders from across the state, including Governor Bill Haslam, former Governor Phil Bredesen, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, former Governor Winfield Dunn, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, Speaker Beth Harwell, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, large majorities in the State House and Senate, and many more.

Amendment 2 has also been endorsed by other leading organizations including the Tennessee Bar Association, the League of Women Voters, Fraternal Order of Police, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Beacon Center of Tennessee, and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Election Day is November 4, 2014, and early voting on the constitutional amendments begins October 15, 2014. For more information, visit VoteYes2.org.

Haslam Names Holloway to Bivins’ Court of Criminal Appeals Seat

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; August 21, 2014:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today appointed Robert Lee Holloway Jr. of Columbia to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, Middle Section.

Holloway, 62, replaces Judge Jeff Bivins, who was recently appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Holloway has been a Circuit Court judge for the 22nd Judicial District, which includes Giles, Lawrence, Maury and Wayne counties. He was appointed to that position in 1998 by Gov. Don Sundquist. He was elected in August 1998 and again in 2006.

“Tennesseans are fortunate to have Judge Holloway to step into this important role,” Haslam said. “He has distinguished himself both on the bench and in various ways in the community. This appointment will serve the Middle Section well.”

Holloway served as general counsel for Columbia Power and Water Systems from 1983-1998 and was general counsel and corporate secretary for Kwik Sak, Inc. from 1982-1995. He was a partner with Fleming, Holloway, Flynn and Sands from 1982-1998 and was with Lovell, Holloway and Sands from 1979-1982. He was law clerk for the Hon. James W. Parrott at the Eastern Section Court of Appeals 1978-1979.

“I am deeply honored by Governor Haslam’s appointment to the Court of Criminal Appeals,” Holloway said. “I look forward to working with the appellate judges on the court. I believe my 16 years as a Circuit Judge have prepared me for this new challenge. I will miss working with the judges, clerks, and attorneys in the 22nd Judicial District.”

Holloway received his law degree from the University of Tennessee in 1978 and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He attended Columbia Central High School. Holloway was president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference in 2012-2013.

He has been active in the Boy Scouts of America and is past president of the Columbia Kiwanis Club. His civic activities have included the United Way of Maury County, the Maury County YMCA, Maury County Public Education Foundation and Crime-Stoppers of Maury County.

Holloway and his wife, Molly, have five children and four grandchildren.

Lee Elected Chief Justice, Term Begins Sept. 1

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

Justice Sharon Lee will become Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, effective September 1.

Justice Lee won a retention election for an eight-year term to the Court in the August 7, 2014 statewide election. She has been a member of the Tennessee Supreme Court since 2008.

“It’s an honor to serve the Court, the Tennessee judiciary, and the people of Tennessee in this role,” said Justice Lee. “I am grateful to the citizens of Tennessee for electing me to the Supreme Court and appreciate the confidence the members of the Court have shown by electing me as Chief Justice. I will continue to work to ensure that courts in Tennessee are fair and impartial.”

Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Justice Lee served as a Judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals from 2004-2008. From 1978-2004, she practiced law in her hometown of Madisonville and also served as a municipal judge, a mediator, and a county and city attorney. Justice Lee received both her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Tennessee.

Justice Lee is active in her community, serving on several boards including the YWCA Knoxville and the East Tennessee Historical Society. She also is involved with the Volunteer Ministry Center and the 2014 Congressional Medal of Honor Convention. Justice Lee has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Chief Justice William E. Barker Equal Access to Justice Award, the YWCA Knoxville 30 Remarkable Women over the past 30 years, the Lizzie Crozier French Leadership Award from the East Tennessee Women’s Leadership Council, YWCA Knoxville Tribute to Women Honoree, the Woman of Achievement Award from the Girl Scouts Council of the Southern Appalachians, the Spirit of Justice Award by the East Tennessee Lawyers’ Association for Women, and the University of Tennessee Alumni Professional Promise Award. Justice Lee has two daughters.

JAS: TN Supreme Court Election Campaign TV Ad Spending Surpassed $1.4 M

Press release from Justice at Stake; August 7, 2014:

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 7–Television ad spending in Tennessee’s Supreme Court election surged past $1.4 million, in a tough contest that attracted money from in-state and out-of-state sources. On Thursday, voters delivered new eight-year terms to all three incumbent Tennessee justices who sought retention to the five-member court.

“Partisans and special interests opened their checkbooks to send a message of intimidation to courts not just in Tennessee, but across America,” said Justice at Stake Executive Director Bert Brandenburg. “And to survive, Tennessee’s Supreme Court justices have had to become professional fundraisers, often soliciting money from parties who will appear before them in court.”

“The amount spent attempting to influence this retention election is deeply troubling,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Arms race spending has no place in a supreme court election. Tennesseans shouldn’t have to worry about outside groups playing politics with their courts every time there is an election.”

According to estimates provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, more than $1.4 million worth of television advertising for and against the justices’ retention had aired by the time polls opened today. More than a million dollars’ worth of advertising contracts are also identified in publicly-available FCC files.

The Tennessee Forum, an anti-retention group funded by a PAC operated by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, spent an estimated $474,150 on TV ads. An out-of-state group, The State Government Leadership Foundation, also spent $63,390 on TV ads to unseat the justices. Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers-funded group, spent money on anti-retention radio campaign for which expenditures remain undisclosed.

The most spending on TV ads, however, came from the justices themselves, who spent an estimated $579,870 in joint ads defending against anti-retention efforts. Tennesseans for Fair Courts, a group formed by a local attorney, also spent $215,840 on TV ads to retain the judges, and Chief Justice Gary Wade funded TV ads totaling $94,980.

Skyrocketing judicial election spending has become the rule, not the exception in recent years. The $1.4-million Tennessee Supreme Court race follows a $1.3-million judicial primary in North Carolina in May, in which the Republican State Leadership Committee was a major spender, and an Arkansas Supreme Court race in which advertising spending doubled over the previous cycle.

The escalating spending on a judicial election in Tennessee matched a national trend of increasing expenditures on judicial elections since 2000, Brandenburg and Bannon noted. In recent years, the trend has spread to several states, such as Tennessee, that have worked to insulate courts from political pressure by establishing merit selection systems. Retention (up-or-down) elections held within the framework of merit selection systems have begun to attract spending and political pressure not previously seen in these races.

Television spending data for the Tennessee race, ads, and storyboards, are available at the Brennan Center’s Buying Time: Tennessee 2014 webpage. For past spending in judicial elections, read The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-2012: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts, a report released by the Brennan Center, Justice at Stake and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. No fundraising or advertising has been previously documented in Tennessee Supreme Court elections in the New Politics reports.

TV Methodology

All data on ad airings and spending estimates are calculated and prepared by Kantar Media/CMAG, which captures satellite data in the nation’s largest media markets. CMAG’s calculations do not reflect ad agency commissions or the costs of producing advertisements, nor do they reflect the cost of ad buys on local cable channels. Cost estimates are revised by Kantar Media/CMAG when it receives updated data, resulting in some fluctuations in the reported ad spending.

National Group Worries Both Sides in Supreme Court Retention Fight Politicizing Judicial Rulings

Press release from Justice at Stake; July 21, 2014:

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 21 – The first television ads calling for voters to oust three Tennessee Supreme Court justices facing retention on August 7th have hit the state’s airwaves, as the retention election continues to heat up.

An ad sponsored by the Tennessee Forum, a conservative Tennessee group, claims the justices are “liberal on crime” and “threaten your freedoms.” It urges voters to “replace the liberal Supreme Court.” The group said these ads are part of statewide campaign that will air through the election.

Public records show that the Tennessee Forum has spent at least $119,055 on television ad contracts in the Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson, Tri-Cities and Chattanooga markets on several stations: WTVF ($30,800); WKRN ($11,150); WSMV ($13,670); WATE ($7,865); WVLT ($12,250); WBIR ($19,155); WDEF ($3,735); WDSI ($1,925); WJHL (16,065); and WTNZ ($2,440).

“Bare-knuckle Supreme Court campaigns have been spreading around the country, and now it’s Tennessee’s turn,” noted Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, which has been monitoring money and politics in this year’s judicial elections. “The new ad is right out of the usual playbook, accusing judges of being soft on crime. As spending accelerates on both sides, yet another state court is being pressured to raise big money and answer to interest groups and politicians.”

“Campaign ads on both sides that politicize judges’ rulings in criminal cases are particularly troubling,” said Alicia Bannon, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Characterizing judges as soft or tough on crime could put pressure on judges to decide cases with an eye toward how their judgment will be portrayed in the next election cycle.

The Tennessee Forum and the Republican State Leadership Committee have also distributed direct mail pieces urging voters to replace the justices.

Public records show that campaigns to retain the justices have spent at least $201,495 so far on television ad contracts in the Memphis, Nashville, Jackson and Knoxville markets on several stations: WKRN ($23,010); three buys on WSMV ($20,340, $21,975, $9,175); WTVF ($21,850); WHBQ ($3,605); WLMT ($1,245); WREG ($16,230); three buys on WBIR ($14,245, $20,025, $6,915); WVLT ($8,165); WTNZ ($3,250); WATN ($3,320); WMC ($13,365); and two buys on WATE ($6,940, $7,840).

The ad highlights the justices’ records, saying they upheld “nearly 90 percent of death sentences,” and urges viewers to vote in favor of their retention.

Since 2000, Justice at Stake, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Institute on Money in State Politics have documented spending in judicial elections in the New Politics of Judicial Elections series (click for the latest report, The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2011-12: How New Waves of Special Interest Spending Raised the Stakes for Fair Courts.) No fundraising or advertising has been previously documented in Tennessee Supreme Court elections in the New Politics reports. As noted in the latest New Politics report, fundraising and spending in retention elections are widely considered to be a recent phenomenon.

New Haslam-Appointed State Supreme Court Justice Sworn In

Press release from the Administrative Office of Tennessee Courts; July 16, 2014:

It was a standing room only in the historic Franklin Theatre as state, county and judicial officials from across Tennessee gathered to honor Justice Jeff Bivins at his investiture July 16, 2014.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam performed the swearing in. Speakers included Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long, Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson, Franklin Mayor Ken Moore, and Sen. Jack Johnson of the 23rd District.

Franklin native and Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark welcomed Justice Bivins to the Court. The crowd also heard remarks from Judge Jeffrey Stewart of the 12th Judicial District, Judge J. Steven Stafford of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and Judge John Everett Williams of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

Kimberly McCall performed the Star-Spangled Banner and Justice Bivins’ daughter Caroline sang God Bless America. Adam Grant of the Franklin Christian Church provided the invocation and Robin Smith of The Gate gave the benediction.

Here are photos from the event.

TN Judiciary Museum Celebrates 1-Yr Anniversary with New Exhibits, Website

Press release from the Tennessee State Courts System; December 5, 2013:

The Tennessee Judiciary Museum is celebrating its one-year anniversary with several new exhibits and the launch of a website devoted to the museum.

The museum has added exhibits detailing several historic cases that have worked their way through the courts of Tennessee. The various exhibits are divided into alcoves that show examples from all levels of Tennessee courts – trial courts, appellate courts and the Tennessee Supreme Court.

The current exhibit –Tales of the Tennessee Judiciary – features objects and documents for eight historic Tennessee cases. Four of these are landmarks of Tennessee’s judicial history, involving the rights of slaves (Ford v. Ford, 1846); a banking crisis (Townsend v. Townsend, 1821), the reapportionment of voting districts (Kidd v. McCanless, 1955); and a dispute involving two players for rival Tennessee minor league baseball clubs (Averill v. Luttrell, 1957).

The remaining cases, which include three murder convictions and an automobile accident, offer a fascinating look back into legal history. Visitors can learn about historic legal decisions and find out what happened after the cases were resolved through the evidence on display and by using the interactive multimedia program.

The museum, housed in the Supreme Court building in Nashville, opened last year as the building celebrated its 75th year. The museum is a project of the Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society, which strives to preserve historical information concerning the Supreme Court and the other appellate courts of Tennessee, and to promote a better understanding of the role of the Tennessee judiciary in our society.

The museum also launched its own website, www.tennesseejudiciarymuseum.org. The website provides information to prospective visitors about the museum and offers lesson plans and other information for educators. The museum is open Monday -Friday from 9 a.m. – noon and admission is free.

Tennessee Supreme Court Upholds Voter ID Act

Press Release from the Tennessee Supreme Court, Oct. 17, 2013;

Ruling on constitutional challenges to the state’s Voter Identification Act by the City of Memphis and two Shelby County voters, the Tennessee Supreme Court has unanimously declined to overturn the Act.

The Act, which was passed in 2011, requires voters to present government-issued photographic identification in order to cast a ballot in state or federal elections. As originally written, the Act authorized several acceptable forms of identification, one of which was a valid photographic identification card issued by an entity of the State of Tennessee.

In response to the new law, the City of Memphis Public Library began issuing photographic identification cards to its patrons. Shelby County residents Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell attempted to vote in the August 2012 primary using their library cards but were turned away by election officials.

Prior to the 2012 general election, Turner-Golden and Bell, along with the City of Memphis, filed suit, arguing that the photographic identification requirement violated state constitutional protections and that the City of Memphis library cards were valid identification.

The trial court denied relief on all counts. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding that the library cards were acceptable identification under the Act, but also concluding that the photographic identification requirement was constitutional.

Because early voting for the 2012 general election was underway, the Court of Appeals ordered election officials to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library. The Supreme Court granted review in November of 2012 and ordered election officials to continue to accept cards from the Memphis Public Library during the general election.

On April 23, the General Assembly amended the Voter Identification Act so that cards issued by municipal libraries were specifically excluded as valid identification. Because of the April 2013 amendments, the Supreme Court first ruled that all issues pertaining to the validity of the Memphis Public Library cards were moot.

In addition, the Court ruled that the individual plaintiffs, Turner-Golden and Bell, had legal standing to challenge the Act, but the City of Memphis, which obviously did not have a vote, did not.

Finally, the Court held that the version of the Act in effect at the time of the 2012 primary election met constitutional standards, concluding that the legislature has the prerogative to enact laws guarding against the potential risk of voter fraud and determining that the additional requirements placed on voters were not so severe as to violate protections set out in the Tennessee Constitution.

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.