Stockard on the Stump: Demise of autopsy bill helped bring special session to close
Kelsey to argue for bail; House Dems endorse Behn
Tennessee Senate leaders, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (top) and House Majority Leader Jack Johnson (second from right), photographed on Aug. 29, the final day of a special legislative session on public safety. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The “autopsy bill” was supposed to be a victory of sorts for Covenant School parents who, along with their children, are coping with the horror of a mass shooting.
Since Republican lawmakers refused to take up Gov. Bill Lee’s extreme risk protection order bill, it would be one way to make them feel the Legislature responded to the horror of March 27 when a shooter blasted into the Green Hills Christian school and killed three adults and three 9-year-olds.
Instead, the measure’s quiet demise marked the end of the governor’s special session on public safety.
The bill, which is likely to be considered in 2024, would make autopsy reports on minors who are victims of violence exempt from the state’s public records act unless parents or guardians sign off on releasing the information.
House Majority Leader William Lamberth made the bill one of his priorities for the session, and it passed the House 86-0, though some wonder whether that vote was made in a vacuum.
In the Senate, where House Majority Leader Jack Johnson sponsored the bill, it ran into trouble from the outset.
The Senate State and Local Government tabled the legislation on the session’s third day.
Several others weren’t enthused with giving Covenant parents a moral victory for the sake of passing “something.” And most chairman were miffed about being hopscotched in the runup to the session.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, tabled more than 50 bills and allowed only the three Lee bills to move. Gardenhire declared the Senate just didn’t have enough time to vet every one of them, and he maintains that stance today.
Separately, the Senate State and Local Government Committee tabled the “autopsy bill.”
Yet it was on the verge of resurrection as the session’s second week started as House and Senate leaders tried to negotiate a way to adjournment amid the Senate’s refusal to take up anything more than three innocuous Lee Administration bills and a spending measure.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, lobbied against the bill, telling Gardenhire the measure should go through the Judiciary Committee because it involves criminal evidence in homicides. Fisher also pointed out the House version deals with state court records.
Fisher tells the Lookout she understands the emotional push by Covenant parents to pass the bill, because those reports are also records of a child’s “last moments on earth.” But she argues more is involved in this bill.
“It was very specifically when someone is murdered, albeit a minor. When it’s a homicide, when someone is killed by someone else, and to me that was squarely about criminal evidence,” Fisher says.
While senators mulled the matter, the House plowed ahead with a long list of bills, pretending the Senate would go along with their charade.
On Aug. 28, as the “autopsy bill” saw a glimmer of hope in the Senate, lawmakers realized its caption would open sections of state code, requiring it to go to the Senate Judiciary, not just through the Senate State and Local Committee where it was put on hold.
Thus, with Senate Judiciary closed and the obstinate Gardenhire refusing to reopen, the bill vanished and the special session followed shortly.
They put me in purgatory, and I’m not even Catholic.
– Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattannooga, on Senate leadership limiting his input in a recent special session.
Nobody is willing to admit publicly the end of the bill also marked the session’s close, which took place Aug. 29 after the Senate agreed to shift tens of millions from other programs to pay for university security upgrades and community mental health agencies.
For instance, Gardenhire might have had a voice, but he wasn’t the final arbiter. “They put me in purgatory, and I’m not even Catholic,” he says.
Johnson, R-Franklin, says he didn’t take part in any private conversations about the bill’s path and points out the chief clerk would have decided.
Asked if he determined the bill would have to go through the Judiciary Committee, Senate Chief Clerk Russell Humphrey says only that Senate Bill 7090 was referred to State and Local Government, which tabled it. He adds, “As such, the bill remained in the committee until such time as the committee would vote to remove it from the table and take further action.”
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s spokesman Adam Kleinheider says senators discussed the bill frequently, some thinking it went “too far” while others “felt it didn’t go far enough.” None of that debate took place in open meetings.
“Ultimately, it was decided that the bill, along with many others that were not part of the governor’s legislative package, required further review and would be best addressed in regular session. That, and not to what committee it may or may not have been assigned, was the primary reason the bill was not considered in the Senate,” Kleinheider says in a statement.
Nevertheless, Tennesseans saw a hasty end to an ill-planned and over-policed session whose costs are still being uncovered, yet another public records question nobody wants to answer.
All in all it’s just another …
Former Sen. Brian Kelsey has a Sept. 21 hearing to argue his request for bail while he appeals a 21-month prison sentence for violating federal campaign finance laws.
Kelsey’s defense attorneys say his “argument for release is straightforward: The government breached the plea agreement at the sentencing hearing, and (as a result) his conviction will be reversed on appeal.”
His attorneys say “legal and factual support” for the position exists and will raise a “substantial rather than frivolous question” about the conviction.
“Critically, this is the only question this court must answer now – whether he could win his appeal and not whether he will.”
He is supposed to report to prison in October after U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw sentenced him to a year and nine months for directing a scheme to shift more than $90,000 from his state campaign account through two political action committees to the American Conservative Union, which bought digital and radio ads supporting his failed 2016 congressional run.
Kelsey pleaded guilty to two counts but then reneged, claiming he was affected by sleep deprivation from crying newborn twin boys and stress from his father’s illness and death.
The feds, however, say he committed perjury, then used a series of delay tactics, including hiring new attorneys, to keep from going to prison. Thus, they sought a tougher sentence.
Check next week’s Stump for the update.
It appears 51st District House seat winner Aftyn Behn won over some new friends, receiving endorsements this week from House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Ray Clemmons of Nashville and Davidson County Reps. Jason Powell and Bob Freeman.
Behn, who is proud of being booted from the chamber by then-House Speaker Glen Casada in 2019, helped organize “Tennessee Three” rallies near the Capitol after Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson were targeted for expulsion this year.
She opted to run after Rep. Bill Beck’s death left the District 51 seat open this year and considers herself an option as the fourth leg of the trio.
Clemmons says she didn’t promise to avoid floor protests, nor did he ask her to make such a pledge.
“I was proud to join my colleagues in endorsing a strong woman with mutual values who I know will work hard and join us in fighting for Tennessee families,” Clemmons says.
The lingering question, though, is whether she will align with Clemmons and Democratic Caucus veterans when the 2024 session starts or gravitate toward the wild side.
Shake it up, baby
Gov. Lee announced this week legislative director Brent Easley will leave the post in mid-October for the private sector and be succeeded by Liz Alvey.
The governor’s special session could be termed “not so special,” though it’s hard to lay at the feet of Easley. And Lee said this week he was grateful that Easley remained on staff long enough to get through the late August ordeal, though he didn’t use that term. Rather, he praised Easley’s performance, saying he was instrumental in expanding access to high-quality education (vouchers and charter schools), boosting economic development (Ford) and modernizing transportation and infrastructure (toll lanes). Easley also served on the COVID-19 Unified Command team (spent billions in federal money). He was only following directions.
The bigger question is: Why? Why would Alvey, former policy advisor to ex-Senate Majority Leader (Judge) Mark Norris, and already legislative counsel for the governor, want to subject herself to working directly with lawmakers (knuckleheads)?
Of course, we reporters could ask ourselves the same thing? Why do we ask the governor and legislators questions over and over, expecting to get reasonable answers, only to get pablum or BS?
“California has worn me quite thin” but “Come Monday, it’ll be all right.” *
(From “Come Monday” by the late, great Jimmy Buffett.)
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