Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro (Photo: John Partipilo)
(Editor’s note: This column incorrectly stated Bret Gunn, former Assistant District Attorney in Putnam County, was forced to resign. Gunn self-reported to the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Supreme Court of Tennessee and was cleared of any ethics violation in Jan. 2021. We apologize for the error.)
Much ink has been spilled over last week’s special legislative session and much more will continue to be spilled, mostly over the omnibus bill to restrict how school boards and businesses can manage COVID-19 among their students and employees.
But that’s not the only poorly thought out and vindictive legislation that was passed during the special session. Rather than take apart the 17-page COVID-19 bill, I’d like to call your attention to the hypocrisy behind another bill that passed: the one which is intended to rein in district attorneys who may not behave in exactly the way the GOP-controlled legislature approves of.
One doesn’t need to be a MENSA member to deduce Republicans are concerned about one district attorney in particular: Nashville DA Glenn Funk.
Funk has irked the GOP’s legislative leaders in the last year or so by announcing he won’t prosecute offenders possessing small amounts of marijuana. He also said he wouldn’t enforce a 2020 law requiring doctors to inform patients of the spurious claim medical abortions can be reversed. The judicial system agreed with Funk, who called the law unconstitutional. ‘Misleading’ was the word used by U.S. Judge William Campbell when he extended an injunction on the law in February.
In May, Funk said in a statement “My office will not promote hate” as he announced that he wouldn’t enforce a new law requiring businesses to post signs if they allow transgender individuals to use their bathrooms.
Murfreesboro GOP Rep. Tim Rudd sponsored the anti-LGBTQ “bathroom bill” and Funk’s stance didn’t sit well with him. So it was no surprise that Rudd served as prime co-sponsor of House Bill 9071, sponsored by Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, that allows the Tennessee Attorney General to appoint a district attorney pro tem (fancy Latin legalese for ‘temporary’) to replace any “district attorney general (who) peremptorily and categorically refuses to prosecute all instances of a criminal offense without regard to facts or circumstances.”
Let me suggest that Rudd pay mind to the Bible verse that states something to the effect of: Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
If Rudd is so concerned with rogue district attorney offices, he’s got plenty of work cut out for him in his home district. No need for he and his legislative cohorts to stew and steam about Nashville’s insolence when they could take action in Murfreesboro.
There’s ample material available to those assessing the numerous ways the Rutherford County District Attorney’s office has fouled up over the last few years alone:
- Rutherford County District Attorney Jennings Jones and Assistant DA John Zimmerman were sued for their roles in a botched investigation called “Operation Candy Crush” for alleging without proof that owners of stores selling legal CBD products were instead dispensing marijuana products—think pot gummies—to children.
- Another suit was filed against Jones and Zimmerman for targeting store owners of Egyptian descent in “Candy Crush.” As the Associated Press reported in 2018, Zimmerman said “all the people selling CBD in Rutherford County are foreigners.”
- “Candy Crush” didn’t mark the first time Zimmerman courted trouble with racist comments, nor the first time Jones defended his assistant. In 2015, Zimmerman told a panel on jury selection at that year’s District Attorney General’s Conference that “all Blacks hate Mexicans,” a remark that brought complaints from several district attorneys. Jones shrugged the comments off in 2019.
- Zimmerman’s prosecutorial misconduct tarnished the 1987 murder trial of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman. Abdur-Rahman’s attorney said Zimmerman “used racist sterotypes” to strike potential Black jurors from the jury pool and a trial court agreed.
- Funk successfully petitioned to vacate Abdur’Rahman’s death sentence in 2019.
- As early as 1994, Zimmerman courted trouble when he implied a judge lied to a jury.
This is to say nothing of DA’s and ADAs’ actions in other Middle Tennessee counties. Coffee County DA Craig Northcott told a civic group in 2018 he doesn’t recognize same sex marriages as legal unions (Spoiler: The U.S. Supreme Court legalized them in 2015) and therefore wouldn’t prosecute domestic violence cases in same sex couples.
Northcott was later investigated by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Board of Professional Responsibility in 2019 for publicly calling Islam “an evil belief system.”
Or Bret Gunn, a former assistant district attorney in Putnam County who was forced to resign after he was found to have purposefully withheld a witness in a rape case he was prosecuting.
I find it unlikely that Sexton, Rudd & Co. considered these DAs and incidents when crafting their legislation, but let’s be real: the new law to rein in DAs isn’t about law and order. It’s about, once again, punishing Davidson County and its duly elected top prosecutor, who won’t play ball with the legislature’s bad legal takes.
I do hope the GOP legislators who backed the Sexton/Rudd bill have good optical insurance. Given the amount of wood blinding them to their own faults, they’ll need it.
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