Editor’s column: Look away from the shiny objects

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is proposing a bill that would create a super-court of three judges appointed by Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, is proposing a bill that would create a super-court of three judges appointed by Gov. Bill Lee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee legislature is wrapping up the first half of the 112th General Assembly, and it’s been one filled with plenty of shiny objects to distract Tennesseans from crucial and life changing matters. 

That the Tennessee legislature is obsessed with matters pertaining to the LGBTQ community is nothing new. I first took notice in 2016, when my state senator, Jack Johnson, sponsored a bill that would give therapists and counselors the right to deny treatment to LGBTQ patients on the basis of “sincerely held beliefs.” 

In 2017 came the first “bathroom bill” that stated transgender individuals had to use the bathroom that corresponded with their assigned sex at birth. That bill died on the vine, but no matter: Each year, the legislature returned  with more bills targeted to this group and increasingly to the ‘Ts’ in LGBTQ. 

A new law bans transgender students from playing on middle school and high school sports teams of whose gender they identify with.

Why our legislators go out of their way to pass legislation that harms their constituents is baffling but I propose we look at this another way. 

Perhaps Tennessee Republicans understand Democrats will fight any discriminatory bills, leaving them with less bandwidth to combat bills designed to thwart an independent judiciary.

Perhaps transgender athletes and members of Tennessee’s LGBTQ community aren’t the only target. Perhaps, instead, Tennessee Democrats are the targets and all empathetic Tennessee voters. 

For the law that bans transgender athletes doesn’t affect very many Tennesseans, but it sure is distracting. There are likely few transgender athletes in middle school or high school sports and they probably make up a very small part of the state’s population. So the new law has no effect on most Tennesseans and a bad effect on some. 

Perhaps Republican legislators understand that Democrats will spend time and energy fighting bills like these that discriminate against any portion of our citizenry. Perhaps the GOP understands that some Democrats remain conservative on issues like this. Witness the handful of Memphis representatives who chose not to vote at all on the anti-transgender legislation, knowing their district constituents wouldn’t understand a vote to support transgender individuals.

Maybe Republicans understood that when five Democrats voted simply ‘present’ —essentially an abstention—instead of voting against the discriminatory bill with the majority of the caucus,  the action would set up a split in the Democratic party.

And while Democrats and progressives were bickering among themselves, the GOP quietly proceeded with legislation of much more harm to many more Tennesseans, like a move to restructure Tennessee’s court system. 

Frustrated and angry a highly respected non-partisan Nashville judge ruled against Republican-led absentee ballot procedures designed to force people to vote in person during the 2020 pandemic, Republicans have been pushing a bill that would allow Gov. Bill Lee to pick three judges for a ‘super court’ that would take authority away from Davidson County Chancery Court. Lawsuits against the state are filed in Nashville because it’s the capital city. 

And Republicans aren’t even shy about their aims. 

“Why should judges who are elected by the most liberal constituency in the state … why should they be the ones deciding cases that affect the state in general?” said Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville, who sponsored the bill. 

I guess it’s hard for some people to fathom the respect judges and lawyers have for the rule of law. Bell and his compatriots need to understand the problem isn’t the court rulings, but the bad laws that necessitate the rulings. 

In a perfect world, no legislator would carry either piece of legislation. In a fair world, the Democratic caucuses and rank-and-file Democrats would have the energy to acknowledge both the transgender bills and the judiciary bills do nothing but hurt Tennesseans. But the Republicans in the legislature know very well the Democratic caucuses are small and overtaxed, so the GOP throws out bills designed to draw your attention. 

Look away from the shiny objects. It’s important.