(NASHVILLE, Tenn.), February 13, 2014 — The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve two bills this week to help crime victims and their families from being further victimized by an unjust court process. The vote on Senate Bills 1796 and 1797, sponsored by Senator Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), came after compelling testimony from the families of Knoxville residents Channon Christian and Chris Newsom, who were carjacked, brutally raped, tortured and murdered. Law enforcement authorities have said the murders were among the most heinous crimes in Tennessee history.
Christian and Newsom’s killers were tried in a court of law and found guilty by the jury of the brutal crimes five years later. However, due to the presiding judge being found guilty of illegally taking narcotics during the trial, a special judge ordered retrials for the defendants, putting the families through two additional years of painful courtroom testimony before they were convicted a second time. The presiding judge, who verbally accepted the verdict, had not signed a routine form accepting the jury’s decision before being removed from the bench. The successor judge decided he could not sign it, even though he found no errors in the trial.
“I don’t believe there has ever been a time that I have come before a committee or the legislature and expressed the personal importance of a bill,” said McNally, who has served in the legislature for 34 years. “I am doing that today because I am really ashamed and angry at how we, the state, and the criminal justice system have treated both the Christian and Newsom families, as well as the two victims of these horrible crimes.”
Senate Bill 1796 creates a presumption applicable to a successor judge that the presiding judge, who serves as the 13th juror, is presumed to have completed his duties once he or she accepts the verdict of the jury.
Senate Bill 1797 puts new restrictions on bringing into evidence presumptions or false information that are related to the victim that is totally unrelated to the crime. This measure would put Tennessee law into agreement with the constitutional amendment passed by Tennesseans in 1998 which states crime victims should be free from intimidation, harassment or abuse throughout the criminal justice system.
“The defense was based on nothing but lies,” said Deena Christian, Channon Christian’s mother. “You cannot bring up anything about their past acts, yet defense attorneys are allowed to bring up the victim’s past, even if they lie about it — and this needs to change.” Christian said the defense made numerous attempts to paint her daughter negatively in order to advance their case, including false accusations regarding illegal drug use despite a coroner report and numerous workplace blood tests which proved otherwise.
“I am appalled at what these victims and their families endured during these trials,” added McNally. “This legislation aims to make sure this never happens again.”
VETS Legislation Offers In-State Tuition Rates and Academic Support for Veterans
Legislation creating a statewide support structure that offers in-state tuition rates for veterans pursuing higher education in Tennessee overcame its first hurdle this week with a unanimous vote from the Senate Education Committee. The Veterans Education Transition Support (VETS) Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), encourages enrollment of veterans and removes barriers known to impede their success in attaining higher education credentials.
“The VETS Act ensures that veterans have a clear, easy pathway to attend college in Tennessee,” Norris said. “As a state, we want to recognize and assist those soldiers who are coming home and exploring their education options.”
Currently, recently-discharged veterans relocating to Tennessee must pay out-of-state tuition rates until residency is formally established. Under Senate Bill 1433, veterans enrolling within 24 months of discharge immediately receive the in-state tuition rate when starting college classes, eliminating the issue of residency for those relying on GI Bill benefits. To maintain in-state status and rates, veterans have one year to present proof of established residency, such as a driver’s license, motor vehicle registration or proof of employment. Registering to vote also fulfills the requirement.
The Act also creates a “VETS Campus” designation to recognize and promote schools that make veteran enrollment a priority. Higher education institutions that satisfy veteran-friendly criteria, such as specialized orientation and the availability of mentoring programs, can receive the designation.
Norris said the VETS Act will attract a disciplined, technically-skilled student base, which is enticing to companies considering Tennessee as a potential destination.
“There is definitely an economic development component to the program,” Norris said. “As Tennessee competes for future corporate investment, having a pipeline of educated, skilled workers is a tremendous asset.”
Faithful Delegate Legislation Approved by State and Local Government Committee
The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved legislation to help ensure that delegates to any future convention called to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution would be “faithful to” limits imposed by the Tennessee General Assembly. The “Faithful Delegate” bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville), is similar in purpose to legislation in other states to ensure that Presidential Electors remain faithful to their pledged candidate for President when voting in the Electoral College.
“There are a number of proposals being put forth now from various states to call for constitutional conventions,” said Norris, who is Chairman of the Council of State Governments. “Our concern is that we don’t have adequate measures in place to protect our Constitution. This legislation puts down the foundation we think is needed to defend our Constitution in the event a constitutional convention should ever occur, and makes sure the delegates are adequately instructed and faithful to the call that the General Assembly gives them.”
Historically, it has been Congress that proposed constitutional amendments; however, Article V of the U.S. Constitution also lays out a mechanism by which two-thirds of the states can propose an amendment by sending Congress a petition. Under this method, the states define the convention’s agenda through their petitions. Twenty states of the 34 required under this procedure, have already called for a constitutional convention for the purpose of writing a balanced budget amendment for the federal government. Other proposals for constitutional conventions are also being considered.
“You were given the responsibility by the authors of our Constitution to protect it,” said Roman Buhler, a constitutional expert and former Counsel for House of Representatives who testified before the Committee. “Senator Norris’ bill is not one for those who are for a convention, or for those who oppose a convention. It is a bill for people who want to protect the constitution from the risk of a runaway convention.”
Senate Bill 1432 requires that in the event of a constitutional convention, the General Assembly would adopt a resolution and provide instructions to the delegates and alternates regarding the rules of procedure and any other instructions relating to the convention. The delegates would then be required to obey those limits or face immediate removal and a Class E felony offense for knowingly or intentionally voting outside the scope of the instructions.
“Our Constitution deserves every possible safeguard,” added Norris. “This would make sure a convention call is strictly limited to the very specific purpose set forth by the General Assembly in a way that is enforceable.”
Second Amendment Rights — State Senators approved legislation this week to authorize handgun carry permit holders to carry a firearm in public parks, unless there is a school function. Senate Bill 1496 is sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville)
Meth / Housing — The full Senate has approved legislation, sponsored by Senator Mark Green (R-Clarksville) that requires a person who makes a profit from housing to report to law enforcement when they know that methamphetamines have been manufactured there. Senate Bill 1503 prescribes a Class B misdemeanor for property owners or caretakers that do not notify law enforcement within 24 hours of discovering that methamphetamine has been or is being manufactured in order to protect the public.
Recognizing Sacrifices of First Responders – State Senators gave final approval to legislation creating the “Three Stars of Tennessee Award” for peace officers, firefighters, and medical first responders killed or injured in the line of duty. Senate Bill 1691, sponsored by Senator Becky Massey (R-Knoxville), calls for the governor to present the award to each recipient or the surviving next of kin during a public ceremony held on or as near as practicable to September 11 each year. The award, which will consist of a medal, a certificate and a ribbon suitable for wearing on a uniform, aims to recognize the heroic and brave sacrifices of first responders who give their lives or suffer a career-ending injury protecting and serving the public.
Student Health — The Senate Education Committee voted this week to prohibit schools from using the time provided to students to walk from one class to the next from being used as 90 minutes per week required under Coordinated School Health Law for students to receive physical activity. Senate Bill 1760, sponsored by Senator Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), ensures that schools abide by the spirit of that law intended to help students make healthy choices through physical activity. Tennessee ranks among the highest in the nation in child obesity and diabetes.
Limited Liability Partnerships – The full State Senate voted this week to give partners seeking limited liability protection a similar level of liability protection that members of Limited Liability Corporation’s (LLC) currently have. Senate Bill 1613 makes clear that partners in Limited Liability Partnerships (LLP) are not personally liable for partnership obligations, whether arising in contract, tort or otherwise, unless the liability arises out of an individual’s partners own wrongful acts, omissions, torts, misconduct, malpractice etc. The bill is sponsored by Senator John Stevens (R-Huntingdon).
Teachers / Classroom Supplies – Legislation to help ensure teachers receive their classroom supply allowance at an earlier date has been approved by the Senate Education Committee. The bill clarifies that at least $100 out of the $200 allotted for supplies under current law, be distributed by August 31. Senate Bill 2277, sponsored by Senator Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), allows teachers to spend the allowance at any time during that school year on instructional supplies as determined necessary by the teacher. It also requires Local Education Agencies (LEA) to send a written explanation for any noncompliance.
Human Trafficking / Final Approval — Two bills which address human trafficking were approved on final consideration this week. Senate Bill 1748, sponsored by Senator Ken Yager (R-Kingston), which prohibits asserting that the subject of the offense was a consenting minor or a law enforcement officer as a defense to promoting prostitution was approved by the full Senate. Senate Bill 1660, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), which adds the offense of promoting prostitution to the list of offenses that constitute severe child abuse was approved by the full Senate. The bills are among 11 measures proposed by the anti-human trafficking coalition to toughen state laws, help survivors, and aid law enforcement in their quest to eradicate human trafficking in Tennessee.
Human Trafficking / Children — In similar action, another bill in the series of human trafficking measures which is aimed at attacking the “demand side” of human trafficking was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Senate Bill 1815, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), toughens penalties against those who patronize prostitution from a child or a person with intellectual disabilities and removes certain defenses that violators have attempted to use. The bill increases the penalty from a Class E to either a Class A or Class B felony, depending on the circumstances surrounding the offense. It also prohibits as a defense to patronizing prostitution asserting that the subject of the offense was a consenting minor or a law enforcement officer. The General Assembly passed a series of bills addressing human trafficking after a 2011 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) report showed 73 of the state’s 95 counties have reported the crime within their borders.
Textbook Commission – A key bill which would revamp the state’s Textbook Commission was approved in the Senate Government Operations Committee this week. The Textbook Commission is composed of ten members whose responsibility is to recommend an official list of textbooks for approval by the State Board of Education. The commission came under fire by a group of parents this year for having adopted textbooks containing inappropriate language and controversial interpretations of historical facts. Under Senate Bill 1602, the governor and the speakers of the House and Senate would have three appointments each, plus the governor could appoint a voting ex-officio member. The legislation also ensures the Commission and those who review the textbooks have significant guidance. In addition, it addresses how the books are chosen at the local level and the process under which an objection can be appealed. The bill is sponsored by Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell (R-Riceville) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville).
Opiate-Related Emergencies — The full Senate approved legislation on Monday to authorize a licensed healthcare practitioner to prescribe the drug Naloxone to a person at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose. Opiate overdoses have soared nationwide. Naloxone is specifically used to counteract life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system and has been highly successful in reversing heroin overdoses with very few side effects. Senate Bill 1427, sponsored by Senator Doug Overbey (R-Maryville), would also allow the physician to prescribe the drug to a family member, friend or other person in a position to assist a person experiencing an opiate-related overdose, as long as the doctor provides written communication establishing a factual basis that a person is at risk. Finally, the bill provides a prescribing physician or person administering the drug immunity from civil liability.
Department of Transportation / Budget Hearing — The Department of Transportation was among the many governmental agencies appearing before Senate Committees as budget hearings continued. Tennessee’s road revenues are flat with a bleak long-term outlook due to federal funding cuts, according to Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer, who delivered the department’s budget to members of the Senate Transportation Committee. For the last five years, Congress has appropriated $55 billion to keep the federal highway trust fund solvent, but observers say chances for appropriation of new money are grim. Schroer said unless Congress acts, Tennessee will see a reduction of about one-third of what the state currently receives from the federal highway trust fund. In good news, the Commissioner said Tennessee roads were recently ranked second best in the nation according to CNBC’s 2013 study “America’s Top States for Business.” Finally, the Senate Transportation Committee voted to ban state road funds from being appropriated to fund rapid transit bus systems on state highways.
January Revenue Report — Finance and Administration Commissioner Larry Martin announced this week that overall January revenues were $1.1 billion, which is $51.6 million less than the state budgeted. January represents the fifth month of negative growth in corporate tax collections this year. The Commissioner said, however, that the January sales tax collections, which reflect consumer spending that occurred during the December holiday buying season, were the largest growth rate experienced in the past 13 months. Franchise and excise taxes combined were $48.9 million below the budgeted estimate of $188.6 million. Year-to-date collections for the past six months were $222.7 million less than the budgeted estimate. The general fund was under collected by $219.6 million and the four other funds were under collected by $3.1 million.