Stockard on the Stump: House duo urges governor hold special session ASAP

May 5, 2023 6:01 am
Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Four days before The Covenant School mass shooting, Reps. Sam Whitson and Darren Jernigan wrote a letter asking Gov. Bill Lee to form an extreme risk task force to “temporarily separate” high-risk people from their guns.

They’d started working on a plan in late 2022 for an extreme risk protection order bill and debated the best time to send the letter to the governor. Two days after the murder of six people, including three 9-year-olds, Whitson personally handed the letter to Lee.

Whitson, a Franklin Republican and retired Army colonel, and Jernigan, an Old Hickory Democrat, believe “it is imperative Lee call a special session as quickly as possible and that crafted legislation concerning mental health and gun violence be in place to help maximize the chances of passing this important legislation in both chambers of the legislature.”

The bipartisan duo would still like to see a task force to come up with a recommendation in advance of a special session. 

Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin. (Photo: Submitted)
Rep. Sam Whitson, R-Franklin. (Photo: Submitted)

The night of the Legislature’s adjournment, after it declined to take up the governor’s floated order of protection plan, Lee said he would call a special session.

It appeared a May date would be chosen, but late August is starting to look more likely, which would give the governor time to form a task force and gain some momentum before lawmakers return to Nashville.

It’ll also allow time to twist arms — if the governor has it in him — especially in the House, where Republican rank-and-file will need some persuasion because of the huge bloc of gun voters in their districts.

The Governor’s Office said Thursday it received the letter but didn’t say whether it affected Lee’s decision, though he will work with lawmakers in the coming months..

Spokesperson Jade Byers said “broad support” exists for a “meaningful solution” to take weapons from dangerous people while maintaining the constitutional rights of law-abiding residents. The Governor’s Office offered lawmakers a list of dates for the session — from May through August — and based on feedback from leadership, it will probably be after July 4.

The bill the governor sent out the last week of the session — which couldn’t gain a sponsor — reflects the Whitson-Jernigan letter, seeking a temporary order with due process to confiscate guns from people considered a high risk for committing suicide or harming others. 

They point out Tennessee ranks ninth nationally for the rate of gun violence and 12th for gun suicides and attempts, with 718 people, many of them rural veterans, choosing to kill themselves with guns each year. 

“Most tragically, guns are now the leading cause of death for Tennessee children and young people,” their letter states.

Tennessee would hardly be a pioneer in this area. Indiana and Florida, under Republican administrations, passed extreme risk order laws that could provide a template for Tennessee.

Our legislature is constantly using boiler-plate language from right-wing groups to hammer little people. So why not put together something useful from other states?

“Most tragically, guns are now the leading cause of death for Tennessee children and young people,” Republican Rep. Sam Whitson of Franklin and Democratic Rep. Darren Jernigan wrote to Gov. Bill Lee, asking him to call a special session on extreme orders of protection.

The Whitson-Jernigan letter notes a task force could hear from suicide prevention advocates, veterans groups, law enforcement (if the legislature would listen), domestic violence service providers, gun owners, anti-violence group, faith communities, child safety workers, pediatricians, psychologists and psychiatrists. That even falls in line with House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s comments the night of sine die that lawmakers need to hear from groups statewide.

The Whitson-Jernigan duo “genuinely” believes the state could take “multiple” steps to lower the state’s gun death and injury rate.

And though this sounds vaguely like a “summer study” — the place where bills go to die — sometimes stuff emerges from these June and July meetings.

Other lawmakers such as Republican Rep. John Gillespie of Bartlett are ready to push for change, too, especially after an incident in which a man armed with an AR-15 tried to break through the door of Fox-13 News in Memphis this week.

Though he doesn’t have the clout he once did, former Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Frist wrote a column for Forbes Magazine Thursday calling for 10 major changes, including restrictions on high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons. Apparently, he’s sick of it. The question is whether lawmakers can stomach any kind of firearm restrictions, since guns never killed anyone on their own but definitely appear to be the weapon of choice for mass murderers.

Despite the growing roar over AR-15s and other military-style weapons used in senseless killings, lawmakers don’t want something crammed down their throats. After all, God gave us the right to be armed – at least that’s what they tell us.

With that in mind, Jernigan says, “we need to have some form of crafted legislation ready to go so we’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

And going home empty-handed.

To release or not

Lee said last week he is encouraging Metro Nashville Police John Drake to release the writings of Audrey Hale, the person responsible for the Covenant school shooting. 

Some lawmakers say it is critical to know her motivation before putting together a bill to prevent mass shootings. It’s been reported Hale’s parents thought she was unstable, yet she accumulated a heavy arsenal. 

Metro Nashville officials appeared ready to release the writings at Lee’s request, but Law Director Wally Dietz says two groups requested “voluminous” documents, so Metro is asking the court to check with family members and others to see if they have any objections. The lawsuits were filed by Clara Brewer for the National Police Association and James Hammond, who is working with the Tennessee Firearms Association.

“We plan to file under seal the entire journal found in the shooter’s car in the parking lot at The Covenant School together with our proposed redactions under the Public Records Act, for the court to review for release,” Dietz says.

TBI Director David Rausch reportedly said at a Tennessee Sheriffs Association meeting that police didn’t find a manifesto but rather “rambling writings” showing no obvious motive but possibly an obsession with other school shooters, according to news reports.

The police department claimed it was keeping those documents secret while the case is under investigation, which caused the state’s chief open records advocate to question whether police were violating the law, since Hale is dead and nobody else is under investigation.

Metro Nashville’s attorneys are now saying some Covenant School parents don’t want the writings released and might intervene in the public records case, Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, reports.

Thus, Davidson County Chancellor I’Ashea Myles gave Metro five weeks to prepare and moved a hearing to June 8.

A lot of people could wind up being disappointed, because the writings aren’t expected to provide any great revelations about Hale’s motive, though they could show signs of a very disturbed person.

TBI Director David Rausch reportedly said at a Tennessee Sheriffs Association meeting that police didn’t find a manifesto but rather “rambling writings” showing no obvious motive but possibly an obsession with other school shooters, according to news reports.

Senate Democratic Caucus spokesman Brandon Puttbrese responded by saying, “It doesn’t matter what was in the shooter’s head; it matters what was in their hand. Instead of looking for meaning in nonsense, let’s enact meaningful gun laws and honor the victims at Covenant by working to stop the next school shooting.”

Since The Covenant School tragedy, though, we’ve seen so many shootings across the country, it’s hard to keep track.

Who knows what could happen between now and late August.

Meet the new boss

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn is set to step down in June after a roller-coaster four years leading K-12 school policy, and we’re getting someone who is likely to continue the trend of undermining public schools. Excuse me, I meant the trend of offering parental choice. 

Under Gov. Lee’s direction, Schwinn helped start the education savings account program, which uses state money to send low-income children in Metro Nashville, Shelby and now Hamilton County school districts to private schools. 

Lee also pushed through a law creating a charter school authorizer with the ability to overrule local boards’ decisions on charter applicants. Then last year, he invited private Hillsdale College in Michigan to open 100 charter schools in Tennessee, before President Larry Arnn to say in a Franklin seminar that teachers are educated in the “dumbest colleges” in the country.

We won’t get into the rest of Schwinn’s travails here because, well, I just get tired of typing sometimes. 

While in Texas, new Tennessee education Commissioner Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, when questioned about her opinion of evolution versus creationism, responded “I don’t have an opinion about it because I don’t have content knowledge, meaning that I am not a science expert or teacher.”

Rumblings that something was happening with Schwinn started recently when Metro documents showed she and her husband, Paul, bought a house for $1.8 million in a toney Nashville neighborhood. 

No word yet on where Schwinn is headed, but she’ll need to make a pretty penny to pay that note. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Her replacement will be Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds, who leaves the post of vice president of policy in ExcelinEd, a pro charter and privatization group in Florida.

Years ago she worked as deputy legislative director for George W. Bush when he was Texas governor and was chief deputy commissioner for the Texas Education Agency. Reynolds also worked in the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings.

In 2021, she wrote a blog saying states should use COVID-19 money to invest in charter schools because they’re better at online teaching.

Didn’t Tennessee decide online school learning was a failure in 2020-21 and spent more than $120 million trying to bring kids back up to snuff after the pandemic? If memory serves, the Legislature held a special session in early 2021 to approve the money for glorified summer programs, tutoring and all sorts of school fun.

That’s not the best part.

American teacher John Thomas Scopes (1900 - 1970) (2nd from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin's Theory of Evolution in his high school science class, Dayton, Tennessee, 1925. Scopes's case came to be known nationwide as the 'Scopes Monkey Trial.' (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Evolution v. creation, Part Two: American teacher John Thomas Scopes (1900 – 1970) (2nd from left) standing in the courtroom during his trial for teaching Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in his high school science class, Dayton, Tennessee, 1925. Scopes’s case came to be known nationwide as the ‘Scopes Monkey Trial.’ (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Texas Observer reported in 2012 that Reynolds, several years earlier, was responsible for getting rid of Texas’ director of science curriculum for warning others about the possibility that creationism could creep into the state’s curriculum and overtake evolution.

Reynolds called the science director’s emails to groups outside the state government “highly inappropriate.” 

Questioned by the Austin American-Statesman about her stance on evolution versus intelligent design in the classroom, Reynolds reportedly said, “I don’t have an opinion about it because I don’t have content knowledge, meaning that I am not a science expert or teacher. But (determining content) is not my role.”

That begs the question: What was she doing working in education if she didn’t know what was being taught?

Maybe she’ll figure it out soon enough in Tennessee and we can hold our second Scopes Monkey Trial – or third or fourth.

Another brick in the wall

A May 16 hearing is set in federal court on former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s move to withdraw his guilty plea to federal campaign finance violations before Judge Waverly Crenshaw.

Kelsey entered the plea agreement “hastily with an unsure heart and confused mind,” according to his latest filing, pleading guilty “to a set of facts that do not constitute the crimes alleged” in two counts and with “theories so muddled that even now the government and Mr. Kelsey do not agree on the operative theory.” Kelsey is represented in the withdrawal motion by David Warrington of the Dhillon Law Group in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Should we find it shocking Kelsey doesn’t agree with federal attorneys who want to send him to prison.

As a reminder, Kelsey’s filing says he was dealing with the decline of his father, who was suffering from pancreatic cancer, all while contemplating “what to do with the rest of his life.”

He was also deprived of sleep by two crying babies after his twin sons were born in September, while his 3-year-old daughter needed attention too and as he balanced two jobs, one presumably with the Legislature and the other with a right-wing national law firm called Liberty Counsel that specializes in union busting. When was he home to hear the crying babies?

Sen. Brian Kelsey. R-Germantown (Photo: John Partipilo)
Former Sen. Brian Kelsey, photographed in the Tennessee Capitol in 2022. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The filing also claims he had only one day to make a decision whether to cop a plea, even though he’d been negotiating with the feds for more than a year.

Kelsey’s head “began to clear” after his father died in early February and he could shift his focus from his father’s illness to “his own criminal matter.”

“Remarkably, in less than ten days from his father’s February 6th funeral, he called his counsel and definitely told them to draft the motion to withdraw and file it as soon as possible,” the filing states.

It further claims this was no “tactical decision.” But isn’t that what defense attorneys do, come up with ways to avoid trouble?

Kelsey was represented in his guilty plea by the dream team of Paul Bruno, one of the top criminal defense attorneys in the state, and Jerry Martin and David Rivera, both former U.S. attorneys.

In (Kelsey’s) retrospect, maybe they aren’t such great attorneys after all. Reckon he’s asked them to give back his legal fees?

Attorneys for attorneys for attorneys

Metro Nashville District Attorney General Glenn Funk is asking a Davidson County court to release all documents related to a TBI search of his office amid NewsChannel5 reports that the Attorney General’s office is investigating potential violations of the state’s wiretapping and privacy laws after it put Ring cameras at its Second Avenue office.

Funk, who is widely reviled by Republicans for his stances against prosecuting minor marijuana possession and the state’s strict abortion law, made the request this week, the Tennessee Journal reports. In the filing, Funk also took some shots at reporter Phil Williams, part of a running feud between the two. We’re not sure who’s the maddest at whom.

Clearly, Funk is irritated that Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti is investigating him, especially since he invited him to the office for a look-see and the AG’s Office represents the Metro DA in five cases.

Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, (Photo: John Partipilo)
Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, (Photo: John Partipilo)

Funk contends the probe “represents a concurrent conflict of interest under the Tennessee Rules of Professional Responsibility.”

He further argues that the investigation file and search warrant affidavit be opened immediately because it affects whether Funk should report Skrmetti to the Board of Professional Responsibility.

Funk’s filing was served on Ronald G. Harris and William J. Harbison of Neal & Harwell, which apparently means the AG’s Office has outside counsel on this case, and Lauren Lamberth, special counsel to the chief deputy office of the Tennessee Attorney General (also wife of House Majority Leader William Lamberth), yet another attorney for an attorney working for the chief attorney.

They’ve got so much work they need clones, sort of like I do when the Legislature’s in session.

The Tennessee Lookout reported this week the Attorney General’s Office will start the next fiscal year in July with 10 new attorneys as part of a “strategic litigation team” to deal with a host of disagreements between the state and federal and local governments.

Wait a second, I feel a budget amendment coming on, because surely – don’t call me Shirley – another legal team is going to be needed to battle with Funk. At least five more attorneys at a cost of $1.27 million should do the trick. 

“Send lawyers, guns and money/ Dad get me out of this.”

If you’re tired of Warren Zevon, try The Clash: “I fought the law and the law won.”

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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 and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.