attorney general

AG lawsuit targets law firm soliciting families of Chattanooga school bus crash victims

News release from Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III today announced the filing of a lawsuit against a Texas law firm, its sole attorney, and two investigators working for the firm. The civil enforcement action, filed in Hamilton County Chancery Court, alleges The Witherspoon Law Group PLLC, based in Dallas, Texas has engaged in the unlawful solicitation of accident victims in Tennessee.

The lawsuit names The Witherspoon Law Group, attorney Nuru Witherspoon, and investigators Alphonso McClendon and Glen Smith and alleges improper and unlawful contact with families of victims in a Chattanooga school bus crash. It is a violation of Tennessee law for attorneys to solicit business within 30 days of a tragedy.

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AG: In TN, ‘men’ includes ‘women’ so courts may say ‘husband’ does, too

A new state attorney general opinion says a House-passed bill declaring courts must use the “natural and ordinary meaning” of undefined words in interpreting Tennessee statutes may not work when it comes to words such as “husband” and “wife,” according to a new attorney general’s opinion.

The bill in question appears to conflict with existing state law on gender-specific words and could also be at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling, the opinion says. The bill passed the House 70-23 on March 16 and is awaiting a Senate floor vote.

Excerpt from the opinion (the whole thing is HERE):

Question 2: If a Tennessee court construed words such as “husband,” “wife,” “father,” or “mother” by their ordinary meaning as required by Senate Bill 1085/House Bill 1111 if it were to become law, would that construction be counter to the holding of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015)?

Opinion 2: Statutes that are related to marriage or to the terms, conditions, benefits, or obligations of marriage could, in some instances, be in conflict with the holding in Obergefell if gender-specific words in those statutes were construed according to the proposed legislation. But not every statute that has gender-specific terms would necessarily conflict with Obergefell if it were construed according to the proposed legislation.

We note, however, that if the proposed legislation were to become law, it may not necessarily result in a judicial construction of statutes that preserves the literal meaning of gender-specific words. The Tennessee Legislature has already expressed its intent that gender-specific words are to be construed as gender-inclusive when they appear in the Tennessee Code. The proposed legislation could, in some instances, be in direct conflict with Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-104(b) which instructs that “[w]ords importing the masculine gender include the feminine and neuter, except when the contrary intention is manifest.” Any conflict between this existing statute and the proposed legislation would be resolved to allow the specific to control the more general statute. Thus, in construing certain statutes with gender-limiting words, a court would likely apply the very specific gender-inclusive requirements of Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-104(b) rather than the very general “ordinary meaning” requirements of the proposed legislation.

Note: The bill, and a similar measure, were inspired by a Knoxville judge’s ruling in a child custody dispute between divorcing lesbians who were legally married in another state. The ruling said only the biological mother of the child, born after artificial insemination, has any legal rights to custody. Previous post HERE.

TN attorney general backs Trump travel ban in court filing

Attorney General Herbert Slatery has made Tennessee the 15th state to join in filing a legal brief that supports President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban during  court challenge, reports The Tennessean.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who last year led efforts to have a private law firm file a lawsuit against federal refugee policies after Slatery declined to do so, made the announcement to reporters on Thursday.

The president’s revised order, which was issued in March, restricts travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen. A federal judge in Hawaii halted Trump’s travel ban, which was his second. The federal judge’s ruling is being appealed in 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

…Last month, attorneys general from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, as well as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, filed the amicus brief with the 9th Circuit. The states argue that Trump’s travel ban is legal. North Dakota also joined the coalition of states that filed the amicus brief this week.

The coalition of states conclude that the appeals court should ultimately reverse the halt of the travel ban.

Slatery urges senators back Gorsuch for U.S. Supreme Court

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery has written the chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Tennessee’s two U.S. senators to voice support for President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court.

“In short, Judge Gorsuch is a champion of the structural safeguards that protect state sovereignty and individual liberty, a committed textualist and originalist, and a brilliant jurist. I urge the Senate to confirm him without delay,” says Slatery in the letter to Sens. Chuck Grassley (the Judiciary Committee chairman), Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

Corker has publicly declared he will vote for Gorsuch’s confirmation. Alexander has praised the nominee lavishly and denounced the notion of Democrats threatening to filibuster the nomination without explicitly saying the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge has his vote.

Text of Slatery’s letter is below.

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Mandatory ‘In God We Trust’ license plates deemed unconstitutional, expensive

Attorney General Herbert Slatery says a law requiring all Tennessee vehicle license plates to bear the slogan “In God We Trust” would be “constitutionally suspect,” but making such plates available as an option – as several states already do – would be OK.

As filed, HB26 by Sen. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton, and Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, declares that “all registration plates issued or renewed” starting July 1 must include the phrase, which is also a national motto.

The legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee had earlier said in a “fiscal note” that the mandate would cost the Department of Safety about $19.6 million. As filed, the bill says all plates must bear the phrase once current inventory is used, making no provision for issuing an annual decal – as opposed to a new plate – as is now the case.  The cost would be about $3.31 per plate, says the fiscal note.

Under the attorney general opinion reasoning, it appears both the high fiscal note and the constitutional questions would be eliminated by making “In God We Trust” available to those getting a license plate and paying the fees, but not requiring it.

Such an amendment may be expected when the bill comes up in committee – and the legislative website says it’s on notice in both the Senate Transportation Committee and the House Transportation Subcommittee on Wednesday.

The full nine-page AG opinion is HERE. (A previous post, HERE)

Senate votes (again) for elected attorney general

News release from Senate Republican Caucus

(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), March 20, 2017 — A resolution that would allow Tennessee voters to decide if they want to popularly elect the state’s attorney general (AG) was approved 22 to 8 tonight by the State Senate on final consideration. Senate Joint Resolution 57, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), begins the process of amending the State Constitution, which if approved by voters, calls for the AG to be elected beginning with the November 2024 general election.

“Currently, the attorney general is twice removed from those he or she is supposed to represent – the people of Tennessee,” said Senator Beavers. “It is time we let the citizens have more of a say in their government.”

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Most GOP legislators try again to get involved in same-sex divorce case

Seventy-one Republican state legislators – 52 representatives and 19 senators – on Friday filed a new motion to intervene in a child custody dispute between two Knoxville women who married outside the state, then sought a divorce after living in Tennessee.

It’s the second such motion; the first was filed in September, 2016,  with 53 Republican legislators signing on to the effort launched by David Fowler, executive director of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, the state’s largest Christian conservative group. This one makes a point of involving Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who has filed a brief in the matter that Fowler disputes.

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AG opines that Fall Creek Falls privatization is legal

Attorney General Herbert Slatery has opined that Gov. Bill Haslam’s plans to privatize operations of Fall Creek Falls State Park are legal, reports the Times-Free Press.

In response to a question about whether department officials violated a statute that governs the Department of Conservation and Environment’s outsourcing of services, Slatery said that statute “is not applicable to the proposed transaction.”

Rather, Slatery said, another statute “provides specific and separate authority for the Tennessee Department of General Services to enter into an agreement for the private redevelopment, construction, and operation of the facilities at Fall Creek Falls State Park.”

Because General Services is involved, Slatery said, that authorizes the outsourcing proposal. (Note: Full opinion HERE.)

… Tennessee State Employees Association Executive Director Randy Stamps, whose group opposes park outsourcing over fears about employees’ jobs, sought to downplay Slatery’s legal opinion.

“I think what it points out is that they did not follow strictly existing laws,” said Stamps, an attorney himself. “The attorney general’s opinion had to point out a new statutory construction, to pick the law that they [the administration] wanted to work to make this legal.”

“Right now the RFP is postponed,” Stamps said, but he said he hopes for more changes from the State Building Commission. “We feel like with the facts that have stepped forward, there’s a real chance they’re going to step back. At least that’s what we hope.”

TN, 12 other states, drop lawsuit over transgender bathrooms

Tennessee was one of 13 states that filed a lawsuit last year against a U.S. Department of Education that called for schools to let students use the bathroom chosen on individual gender identity rather than as as listed on the person’s birth certificate.  In light of the Trump administration’s reversal of the Obama administration move, the states – including Tennessee – have abandoned the lawsuit, as announced in the Friday news release below.

 News release from Office of the Attorney General

Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III today announced a victory for the states in their fight to uphold school rights. The 13-state coalition is withdrawing its lawsuit after the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to drop its appeal of a nationwide injunction. The moves were preceded by the federal government rescinding an Obama administration directive that redefined the term “sex” as a person’s sense of gender identity and placed federal funding at risk for schools nationwide that did not adhere to the new definition.

General Slatery issued the following remarks:

“The decision by the Department of Education and Department of Justice to withdraw the guidance provided in the May 13, 2016 “Dear Colleague Letter” ends an attempt by the previous administration to take what should be a state and local issue under the Tenth Amendment and turn it into a federal issue. We are pleased to announce that the states’ litigation is no longer necessary.

Last year, Sumner County School District was targeted by the ACLU, leading to an investigation by the Department of Education. Thankfully, that misguided use of federal resources is no longer relevant. Because the unlawful locker room and bathroom directive was rescinded, Tennessee schools will no longer be subjected to the threat of losing federal funding if they do not comply.

Our Office has consistently opposed efforts to take away states’ rights and exclude the people’s representatives from making these decisions. This is a positive outcome for the states involved, but it is also a win for the basic privacy rights of our students.”

AG says ‘heartbeat bill’ is constitutionally suspect

A new state attorney general’s opinion says pending legislation to prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected is “constitutionally suspect.”

On the other hand, the opinion also says a provision within the bill (SB244) requiring women to get an ultrasound before an abortion is constitutionally defensible.

The so-called “heartbeat bill,” sponsored by Sen. Mae Beaves, R-Mount Juliet, and Rep. Micah Van Huss of Jonesborough, runs counter to past federal court decisions, says the opinion, citing rulings against similar laws in Arkansas and North Dakota.

The full opinion is HERE.


Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.

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