Stockard on the Stump: Tennessee Supreme Court to hear out-of-state voting restoration appeal

June 17, 2022 7:01 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Virginia’s governor granted clemency to Ernest Falls in 2020 on a 1986 felony conviction and restored his citizenship, paving the way for him to regain his constitutional rights.

But when Falls tried to register to vote in Tennessee, he hit a wall.

Tennessee Elections Administrator Mark Goins changed his stance and determined that Falls and other people convicted of felonies out of state must prove they meet requirements for Tennessee’s administrative voting rights restoration, including payment of court costs and restitution, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

Falls couldn’t provide that documentation on his 35-year-old court case and was denied the ability to register, even though Tennessee law says a person convicted of a felony out of state is disqualified from voting unless their civil rights have been restored in that state — as Falls’ rights were — or under Tennessee’s process, the Washington, D.C.-based civil rights advocacy group says.

Falls lost challenges in Chancery Court and the Court of Appeals, but the Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear his case. The Supreme Court rarely grants appeals, and the Campaign Legal Center considers the court’s decision to hear the case a “positive sign.”

“This really stands for the principle that the election administrators can’t just move the goalposts to make it more difficult for people to vote,” says Blair Bowie, senior legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing Falls and Artie Bledsoe in challenges. “They have to follow the contours of Tennessee law and that applies to people with felony convictions and people who don’t have felony convictions.”

For those with felony convictions, Tennessee has one of the most complicated laws and rights restoration processes in the nation. But election administrators shouldn’t be able to make decisions that make it more difficult to regain voter rights, she says.

“This is an example of a class of people that we know is significant, that should be allowed to vote under Tennessee law, as it stood unchanged since 1983, and then suddenly in 2019, the elections division decides they are going to add all these additional hurdles in front of them, and that violates the Tennessee Legislature’s will and it violates the Tennessee Constitution,” Bowie says.

Final Complaint - Falls v. Goins

The League of Women Voters and a group of 20 Tennessee law professors filed amicus briefs in support of the Campaign Legal Center’s argument.

The Secretary of State’s office requested an attorney general’s opinion in March 2020 asking whether people who are ineligible to vote in Tennessee because of out-of-state felony convictions have to satisfy all outstanding debts from court costs, court-order restitution and child support obligations before they can apply for reinstatement of their voting rights. The answer was, “yes.”

Tennessee’s felon disenfranchisement provision applies to people convicted of a crime that constitutes a felony under state law, including those whose convictions occur in other states or in federal court, the opinion says.

State law makes it clear the Legislature “meant to treat all convicted felons equally and to provide a single framework governing the eligibility for re-enfranchisement of all convicted felons, regardless of the state or court in which they were convicted,” the opinion says.

The Campaign Legal Center, nevertheless, contends thousands of people in Tennessee are disenfranchised because of similar situations. Some 421,000 Tennesseans are not allowed to vote because of felony convictions, and the Black community is “disproportionately impacted,” with more than 31% of its voting age population disenfranchised, according to the Campaign Legal Center.

The organization says Goins reversed his view on the restoration of voting rights to out-of-state felons after writing a 2019 letter responding to questions.

In that letter, Goins wrote that a person with an out-of-state conviction may have voting rights restored if they can show that they’ve either been pardoned or had their citizenship restored by the governor in the state of conviction or full rights of citizenship restored in accordance with laws in the other state.

No mention is made in Goins’ letter of showing proof of court costs or other legal expenses. 

It’s not surprising that Mr. Falls wouldn’t be able to find documents in a Virginia court clerk’s office showing he paid court costs. With courts switching from paper records to computerization over the last 40 years, the odds of getting paperwork from the 1980s are extremely slim.

And if he served prison time, he probably wouldn’t have had any income to pay those expenses. After years in prison, is he supposed to drop by the courthouse and drop a few hundred dollars?

Maybe the Supreme Court will show some enlightenment on this matter.

Trouble for convicts

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton signed truth in sentencing legislation Thursday at a Knoxville ceremony, more than a month after Gov. Bill Lee returned the bill without his signature.

At one point, lawmakers were believed to be holding up the governor’s new K-12 funding formula unless he agreed to go along with the tougher sentencing measure. Ultimately, legislative leaders reached an agreement with the governor that dropped some crimes from the list that will have to be served at 100%. 

Under current sentencing guidelines, most convictions have built-in reductions. But under the new rules, most violent acts will be served at 85% to 100%.

Sexton and McNally argued the tougher guidelines will prevent criminals from getting out of prison sooner than projected and committing violent crimes again. Critics of the legislation, which takes effect July 1, say it will keep felons in prison longer than necessary, costing the state tens of millions of dollars and likely forcing the construction of more prisons.

Back where we started

The Tennessee Department of Education sent out a release this week touting the efforts of the Legislature and teachers to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic when schools shut down frequently to avoid spread of the deadly virus.

The press release came with all sorts of glowing statements and back-patting from our legislative leaders for spending millions of dollars to send students to summer camps – summer school – to return them to their glory years.

No doubt, it’s been a tough two-and-a-half years. Some kids couldn’t cope with online learning, and they’ll never get over the changes they went through in spring and fall 2020. If they lacked discipline before the pandemic, they didn’t have much hope once it hit.

Most, though, are resilient.

The good news: A report from the Tennessee Department of Education shows students have returned to pre-pandemic levels of proficiency in English and math! The bad news: Pre-pandemic wasn’t so good.

The state report showed students returned to pre-pandemic levels for English Language Arts proficiency in nearly every grade as more met or exceeded expectations than in 2019. Those included a 6-point gain in elementary school proficiency, the best in five years and a 6-point gain in middle school proficiency from 2021, matching pre-pandemic performance, and a 7-point gain in high school proficiency, reflecting the highest level in the last five years.

In math, elementary students saw a 4-point gain in proficiency, middle school kids made a 6-point gain in proficiency from 2021, and high schoolers made a 4-point gain in proficiency.

Of course, a big jump is expected now that kids are back in classrooms and have some semblance of consistency in their lives. Young people are fairly resilient, or should be.

Now the down side, only 36.4% of Tennessee students meet grade level expectations in English Language Arts, and only three in 10 are doing grade level work in math. Furthermore, students closed 35-55% of learning loss gaps in math, based on the latest tests. That means they’ve still got some big gaps to fill.

Hey, I’ve got an idea. Since public schools are having to work so hard to bring these kids back up to snuff, why don’t we pay to ship them out to private schools, where all the students, teachers and administrators are so much smarter than our miserable, little people in the public world.

Oops, sorry, we’re already trying to do that.

A voucher boost

The Tennessee Supreme Court this week declined to reconsider its ruling in the lawsuit against Gov. Bill Lee’s private school voucher program, enabling it to move forward once other legal questions are settled.

In May, the court ruled that the education savings account program doesn’t violate the state’s Home Rule Amendment, which prohibits legislation from singling out counties without local approval.

Under the plan, qualifying low-income students in Metro Nashville and Shelby County will be able to take state funds and enroll in private schools.

Metro and Shelby petitioned the court for a rehearing on May 31, with Metro arguing that the supremes failed to consider the fact that the school district is part of the local government, not a separate entity, which was the court’s basis for ruling against them in the first place. Never mind the fact that the Metro Nashville School Board doesn’t have the authority to levy or collect taxes to operate the school system.

"I'm encouraged and praying for our Justices," said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville(Photo: John Partipilo)
“I’m encouraged and praying for our Justices,” said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, changed his vote on Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher plan after cutting a deal to ensure his district was exempt. (Photo: John Partipilo)

“The Court has thoroughly reviewed the petition. The Court previously considered the issues raised in the petition in the course of its resolution of the appeal. The petition, therefore, is respectfully denied,” the court’s response says.

With all due respect, that doesn’t show a whole lot of respect to either Shelby County or Metro Nashville or the state Constitution. It’s also a little insulting to the people who were in the House chamber the day former Speaker Glen Casada held the vote board open for nearly 45 minutes to work the chamber and break a tie. Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, finally came forward and agreed to vote for vouchers with the promise Knox County Schools would be removed as an ESA district. The House also removed Hamilton County Schools to make sure it could get votes from Chattanooga area representatives. Otherwise, the bill would have died. Some say it really died anyway.

We also know the ruling would have come out differently if Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark hadn’t passed away last year before the court rendered a decision. Her replacement, Justice Sarah Campbell, didn’t participate in the final ruling. But Judge Skip Frierson sat in and sided with Chief Justice Roger Page, who wrote the majority opinion that depended on a technicality to get the outcome. 

Sometimes, however, you have to look at reality, not legal precedent, neither of which the court followed. If what happened in the House that day wasn’t a violation of the Home Rule provision, then what the heck was it? 

We’re in the money

The state reported revenues for May hit $1.6 billion, $327.4 million more than the budget estimated and $41.8 million more than Tennessee took in last year.

That brings revenues so far this fiscal year to $2 billion more than projected, giving the state a little bit of a cushion and the Legislature more money to fritter away on out-of-state nonprofit organizations.

While legislative tight-wads will say the state needs to keep shoving money into the rainy day fund, which is at an all-time high of $1.8 billion, the question has to be asked: Are we being underspent or overtaxed? It has to be the former because Gov. Lee keeps telling us we are one of the lowest-tax states in the nation.

The Legislature put $280 million worth of tax breaks into the next fiscal year’s budget, which starts July 1, including a weekend sales tax break and month-long grocery tax cut. 

It appears, though, we more than covered that amount in the month of May alone. Certainly, we need to be prepared for darker days. But for the rest of the unwashed masses, inquiring minds want to know: When are we getting our rebate?

“… What’s that sound? Everybody look, what’s going down?”

Franklin businessman Robby Starbuck asked the question on Twitter this week whether anyone else in Middle Tennessee heard loud booms each day for the last week. He said it sounded like something crashed into neighborhood roofs.

One wise guy said it could be the “sound of political prospects imploding.”

Robby Starbuck, right, with Donald Trump, Jr., in a photo from Starbuck2022 congressional website.
Not the coffee: Robby Starbuck, right, with Donald Trump, Jr., in a photo from Starbuck2022 congressional website.

The Supreme Court ruled against Starbuck in his effort to have his name restored to the ballot in the 5th Congressional District Republican primary after a group of executive committee members from the Tennessee Republican Party gave him the boot. They said he didn’t meet the bonafide requirements.

A Chancery Court said the committee violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act. But the Supreme Court said the Republican committee didn’t fall under the act. 

Either way, he wasn’t going to win. If half the Republicans don’t like you in a four-person race, it doesn’t bode well for a win, whether you’re on the ballot or making a write-in campaign.

“Paranoia strikes deep/ Into your life it will creep”

Speaking of explosions, now-former state Rep. Rick Womick testified before a House committee in March 2013 and talked about an electromagnetic pulse bomb being detonated just outside Shelbyville. 

He said the detonation, which was reported in a local newspaper, could wipe out electronic equipment in a 5-mile radius. The problem was that nobody in the world knew what the heck he was talking about. For that matter, nobody could ever figure out what Womick was talking about.

The Rockvale Republican also claimed on the House floor one day that the city of Murfreesboro was using Agenda 21, a United Nations plan designed to improve life over the next millennium, to stop a businessman from opening a barbecue joint called “Papa’s Butts.” He claimed the city was even trying to make the owner paint the building a certain color, which was part of the UN conspiracy.

As it turned out, the business owner was trying to turn his fencing company into a restaurant. To do that, he had to meet certain city requirements for parking, landscaping and restaurant seating in addition to state health department rules for sinks, stoves, etc. 

Other than averting poor health from too much pork, it’s unclear how Agenda 21 would have been used to stop “Papa’s Butts.” But Womick never let the truth get in the way of a good argument.

The business owner’s name escapes me some 20 years later, but he wasn’t too pleased that the representative used him as an example on the House floor. Why? He didn’t want any more attention than he was already getting from the city planning department. And Womick’s mouth sure didn’t help.

Ab buster in the House

State Rep. Todd Warner is looking buff these days in a campaign mailer touting his conservative stands (The Tennessee Journal turned up this election fodder). I’d like to get in on the same photoshopping or exercise/diet program to trim my gut. But it would probably require swearing off IPAs, which can be almost as addictive as golf. 

Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Todd Warner, R-Culleoka (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Chapel Hill Republican, who is facing competition in August’s primary from Matt Fitterer and Jeff Ford, has been under FBI investigation since January 2021, two months after he won election.

It’s believed federal agents were looking into connections between his campaign and new vendors and political action committees that got into the 2020 race and eventually led to the conviction of now-former Rep. Robin Smith on fraud charges.

According to her plea agreement this year, she teamed up with Rep. Glen Casada and his former House Speaker chief of staff, Cade Cothren, to make a bunch of money off Republican lawmakers and take kickbacks. Casada and Cothren have not been charged.

But according to federal documents, Cothren set up Phoenix Solutions, a phony New Mexico-based company, to solicit business without anyone knowing it was him. He resigned in 2019 amid a racist and sexist texting scandal that helped force Casada out of the Speaker’s office, and nobody would have done business with him if they’d known it was him, according to the federal documents.

Phoenix Solutions used the same Chattanooga bulk mail postal code, 383, as the Faith Family Freedom Fund, which Cothren also ran, and Dixieland Strategies, the company tapped by Warner when he defeated incumbent Rep. Rick Tillis, a Casada political enemy, in the 2020 primary.

Warner continues to use Dixieland Strategies, saying this year, “They done me a great job.” Guess what the postal code is for his latest mailer is: 383.

“Old times there are not forgotten/ Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.