Lawyers across TN bash push to remove Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle

By: - March 9, 2021 4:00 am
Scales of justice with back-light on wood table.

(Getty Images)

A new coalition of Tennessee attorneys opposing the effort in the legislature to remove Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle announced its formation last week

The group, called the Committee for an Independent Judiciary, formed just days after the influential Tennessee and Nashville bar associations announced their opposition to legislation to remove Lyle.

State Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, filed the resolution to begin the process to remove Lyle, the veteran judge who was appointed to the chancery court by Republican Gov. Don Sundquist in 1995. On Friday, Sen. Frank Nicely filed the Senate companion resolution necessary to remove Lyle.

Attorney Aubrey Harwell, Jr. (Photo: Neal and Harwell)
Attorney Aubrey Harwell, Jr. (Photo: Neal and Harwell)

The Committee for an Independent Judiciary was coordinated by prominent Nashville attorneys Aubrey Harwell, Bob Boston and Billye Sanders, Memphis attorney Lucian Pera, Chattanooga attorney Roger Dickson and Knoxville attorney Wayne Ritchie. Members represent some of Tennessee’s biggest law firms, including Miller & Martin, Adams and Reese, Waller Law and Neal & Harwell. 

The group said in a press release it “strives to educate about the perils of the pending legislation which would swiftly deconstruct the state’s system of justice by allowing powerful people to influence the decisions of any Tennessee judge.”

Rudd said he filed the resolution because he believed Lyle acted unethically and in defiance of the state constitution when she ruled the pandemic and fear of contracting COVID-19 was a sufficient reason to request an absentee ballot for last year’s August primary election. Lyle subsequently chastised the state’s top election officials for not following her order and adding the appropriate language to the absentee request form.

The state appealed Lyle’s ruling to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which reversed the chancellor’s order and ruled fear of the pandemic was not a good enough reason to request an absentee ballot. Tennessee was one of just five states to not allow all voters to request an absentee ballot amid the pandemic in 2020.

However, attorneys for the state flip-flopped at the 11th hour and told the Supreme Court they would not fight the portion of Lyle’s order allowing voters with pre-existing conditions making them prone to the virus, as well as their caretakers, to ask for absentee ballots.

In a comment emailed to the Tennessee Lookout through a spokeswoman, Nicely said “this is a serious matter that deserves a careful look by the Senate which is the impetus of the resolution.”

Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

But, attorneys have bashed the push to remove Lyle, arguing it is legislative over-reaction to a complicated ruling under the unique circumstances of the pandemic. Critics say the mere filing of the resolution could have a chilling effect on the judiciary, and put judges who weigh politically divisive cases in the crosshairs of the Republican super-majority in the General Assembly.

In a press release on Monday, the three men who most recently served as Disciplinary Counsel for the Board of Judicial Conduct – Circuit and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Joe Riley, Circuit and Senior Judge Steve Daniel and former assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Discenza, outlined their opposition to the resolution to remove Lyle.

“During our service, we were charged with the supervision of the judicial branch in the compliance with the Code of Judicial Conduct, and we are well familiar with the performance of Judge Ellen Hobbs Lyle,” the trio said in their joint statement sent on behalf of the Committee for an Independent Judiciary. “She has served ethically, honorably and with great scholarship in our experience. Because her court is located in Davidson County, the seat of the Tennessee government, she has an inordinate workload of complex and unique cases that affect the entire state. She is an outstanding judge who does not deserve this shameless treatment by the legislature. We would ask that all who are interested in fair and independent courts to reach out to their legislators and advocate their opposition to this effort.”

The effort to remove Lyle has already had a tangible effect in Nashville. Lyle had been presiding over a lawsuit from the Shelby County and Metro Nashville Public Schools districts over the adequacy of state education funding. She recused herself from that lawsuit after the resolution was filed by Rudd.


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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan. 615-498-5202