TN judge rules on parental rights in same-sex divorce case

In the first ruling of its kind in Tennessee, a Knox County judge on Friday decided that the same-sex spouse of a woman giving birth to a child by artificial insemination has no legal rights or obligations to the baby after a divorce.

Further from the News-Sentinel:

“I believe this is a situation where (Erica Witt) has no biological relationship with this child, has no contractual relationship with this child,” 4th Circuit Court Judge Greg McMillan ruled.

Erica Witt and Sabrina Witt legally wed in Washington, D.C., in April 2014, bought a home in Knoxville and decided to have a child via artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. Sabrina Witt bore a baby girl as a result in January 2015. Because Tennessee did not then recognize same-sex marriage as legal, Erica Witt’s name was not placed on the baby’s birth certificate.

In February, Sabrina Witt filed for divorce. Her attorney, John Harber, contended the only law on Tennessee’s books addressing parenting rights in the case of artificial insemination — enacted in 1977 — makes clear the law applies only to husbands.

“That terminology is not interchangeable,” Harber argued at a hearing Friday.

Tennessee still doesn’t have a law on the books officially recognizing same-sex marriage but is essentially under a mandate to do so due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to marry. That ruling did not address divorce or parental rights in a divorce in which neither same-sex partner legally adopted the child they call their own.

Erica Witt’s attorney, Virginia Schwamm, contends the same reasoning used by the nation’s high court in marriage applies in divorce and custody matters.

“The argument that marriage may only consist of a ‘husband’ and a ‘wife’ has been held to be unconstitutional,” Schwamm said. “(Tennessee marriage certificates) still (indicate) male and female, but surely that no longer applies. Just because the statute reads man and woman, this court can interpret the statute in a manner that makes it constitutional.”

…Schwamm called the language of husband and wife outdated and urged McMillan to simply update it via his ruling, just as court clerks’ offices across the state are now revamping all manner of domestic forms, from marriage certificates to divorce petitions, to accommodate same-sex couples.

…But McMillan said it was not up to the courts to enact “social policy” via legal rulings and a strict reading of the artificial insemination law tied his hands in this case.

“I believe as a trial court I am not to plow new ground, but to apply precedent and the law,” McMillan said.

He is allowing Schwamm to appeal, putting the divorce action on hold pending a decision by the Tennessee Court of Appeals on whether to hear the issue.

“Given the novelty of this issue, the court thinks it appropriate to see if the appellate courts want to address this,” he said.

Special prosecutor sought in sheriff’s dealings with woman inmate

A district attorney wants a special prosecutor to review complaints against Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson filed by a county commissioner, reports the Times-Free Press. One allegation is that the former state legislator pulled strings to get an inmate with whom he allegedly had a personal relationship released from jail.

County Commissioner Dan Rawls, who has tussled with Watson’s office for months over what he claims is improper and deceptive practices, said he handed over allegations and evidence to 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Crump’s office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In a statement Thursday, Watson said he is cooperating with the investigation…. “I have done nothing wrong. I have not betrayed my oath or the public trust in any way… ,” he said. “My only agenda will be keeping the citizens of Bradley County safe.”

Among other questions, Rawls asked the investigators to look at whether Watson’s wife, Tenille Watson, is getting favorable treatment as a bail bondsman. Court records for March and April show Tenille Watson, who received her license in February, wrote more bail bonds by herself than the next-largest bonding agency did with three agents.

…The allegation regarding favoritism toward a female jail inmate has been detailed by multiple sources who spoke to the Times Free Press on condition of anonymity. The woman could not be reached for comment.

The newspaper obtained dozens of images of Facebook messages purportedly exchanged by Watson and the woman in the months before she was jailed in July 2015. His identity on the Facebook messages is listed as “Sheriff at Bradley County Sheriff’s Office,” and in one message, he gives her a cellphone number that matches his official sheriff’s office cellphone.

In a December 2014 exchange, the woman posts a picture of herself in a scanty red brassiere, and Watson asks whether she needs to be warmed up. In January 2015, he tells her they should “hang out” and she says she’ll take off work to go on a trip with him.

The images obtained by the Times Free Press continue, including a message at 5:48 p.m. July 6, the date of her arrest on a felony robbery charge, urgently asking him to call her.

County records show the woman was booked into the Bradley County Jail at 7:41 p.m. that day and released at 9:54 p.m., her bond posted by Cumberland Bail Bonds (the company that employs Watson’s wife).

A note on the file states: “Received call from Sheriff Watson stating [the woman’s] bond lowered to 1000 by Judge Randalph [sic] and there is a note on affidavit stating bond is 1000.”

General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph remembered the case. He said the warrant originally called for no bond, but someone — he didn’t remember a name — called that evening and asked him for a lesser amount. He said the caller described the woman as a confidential informant.

“Ordinarily I’d probably set her bond at $30,000 the next morning,” Randolph said. “Why he would get so involved is unusual.”

Rawls said his contacts at the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office told him the woman “is not an informant, never was, never will be.”

A few months later, records show, the woman was set free just four days into a separate 120-day sentence for violating probation.

The violation of probation charge, for a 2013 DUI, was triggered by the robbery arrest.

Note: See also the Cleveland Daily Banner’s report.

UT trustees host country club dining for state legislators

Six legislators and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett dined with the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees at Cherokee Country Club on Wednesday night at what is being called a strictly social event that was not on the trustees’ public agenda, reports Georgiana Vines.

Gina Stafford, UT communications director, said trustees frequently have luncheons with local legislative delegations where presentations are made. Those are public at various campuses when the board meets, she said.

Dinners have never been public, she said.

“Number one, it is a social function. The things we are obligated to share or take a vote on or deliberate is public. It (the dinner) doesn’t correspond with that,” Stafford said.

…State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, attended the dinner with husband Morton. She said she thought it was “smart on their (UT’s) part to basically facilitate communication.”

“The board hasn’t necessarily been doing that,” she said. “They need to be building relationships. I think that was a smart thing to do. People can work through things better if you have a good relationship with them.”

Legislators took issue with various UT programs this year, including defunding its Office for Diversity and Inclusion after controversial Web posts regarding gender-neutral pronouns and inclusive holiday parties. U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, also blasted UT for the website’s suggestions on holiday parties, calling the memo “ridiculous.”

Duncan, who is Massey’s brother, also was invited to the dinner but couldn’t attend, she said.

…Stafford said legislators from surrounding counties were invited, as was Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero.

Other lawmakers who attended, all Republicans, were Sen. Richard Briggs and Reps. Roger Kane and Eddie Smith of Knoxville, Sen. Doug Overbey of Maryville and Rep. John Ragan of Oak Ridge.

Cohen denounces pro-gun ‘nuts’ as windup to House sit-in

As House Democrats suspended their sit-in over gun violence Thursday, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen called the 25-hour protest “a great day for America” and denounced “crazy, looney tweets” from pro-gun “nuts,” reports Michael Collins.

“What a great opportunity for Democrats to come together and show unity on an issue of such importance as saving lives,” the Memphis Democrat said in a fiery speech from the House floor, about 30 minutes before the sit-in ended. Democrats have vowed to restart it when the House returns from its July 4 recess.

Cohen said the gun-control measures Democrats are seeking — to expand background checks and prevent suspected terrorists from buying guns — are “low-hanging fruit,” and Congress should be working to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.

Yet, he said, a lot of gun owners have taken to social media to argue they need assault weapons “to defend themselves from their country.”

“They’re nuts,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat who also participated in the sit-in, said House members should be allowed to vote on issues of concern to the public.

“Making sure that terrorists can’t easily get their hands on guns is a no-brainer, and we should vote on it,” Cooper said. “We should not shirk our responsibilities to the country on any of the important issues of the day.”

…Cooper said that while the “no-fly” list is not perfect, “it has been good enough to keep airplanes from exploding over the U.S. since 9/11.”

“I am exploring ways to get a better list, and I am open to all good ideas,” he said. “But the legitimate problems with today’s no-fly list are solvable, such as by adding due process protections. The key point is that Congress should be working on these issues, not ducking them. We should be solving the problem of identifying terrorists, not giving up.”

Nashville approves unisex restrooms for businesses

Nashville businesses with single-toilet restrooms are no longer required to have one facility specifically for women and another just for men, reports The Tennessean.

The Metro Council voted unanimously on a final of three readings Tuesday to broaden exceptions for unisex restrooms, which are only allowed in Nashville businesses that fall below a square-footage threshold.

The ordinance was introduced by Councilman Brett Withers, who filed the bill last month after learning that the owners of Wild Cow, a vegetarian restaurant in his East Nashville district, were warned by Metro codes inspectors that they could not have unisex restrooms in a new restaurant the couple is planning nearby called Graze.

He said he later learned that several restaurants and businesses were technically in violation of a law that few realized existed.

“This just allows businesses who choose to do so to go ahead and make all of their single-user restroom facilities available to males and females,” Withers said.

“It (also) accommodates folks who might be transgender or might have a gender expression that doesn’t line up with traditional gender expectations in terms of hair style or clothing style,” said Withers, who is one of two openly gay members on the council. “It helps people to avoid having that kind of discussion or examination.”

The new law, which was signed by Mayor Megan Barry on Wednesday, authorizes unisex restrooms at most businesses that have two or more bathroom facilities that each consist of single toilets and have locks..

UT gets new diversity leader

University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro announced Thursday that he’s created a new position to address diversity and inclusion across the system, reports the News Sentinel.

Noma Anderson will be special adviser to the president on diversity and inclusion starting July 1. DiPietro said Anderson’s role builds on a commitment to diversity and will address challenges related to inclusion.

Anderson is currently dean of the College of Health Professions at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis and chair of the Diversity Advisory Council for the system.

With her new position, Anderson will spend half of her time as an adviser to the president and chair of the diversity council. The other half will be as a faculty member working to streamline admissions, transfers and financial aid processes in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology. She will be based in Memphis.

Anderson’s salary will be $230,817.96 and dually funded by UTHSC and UT System, according to the university.

…The creation of the new role comes after state lawmakers defunded the Knoxville campus’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion for one year and after strong support for diversity from faculty and students… Both Cheek and DiPietro stressed during the meetings that UT has to follow the new law but is committed to diversity.

UT Trustees sign off on 2.2 percent tuition increase

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees has approved tuition increases for the coming fiscal year that the school says are the lowest in 30 years.

According to a news release from UT, in-state tuition will increase no more than 2.2 percent for most undergraduates. The majority of fees will not increase. The net increases range from 0 to 3 percent, depending on the campus.

The increases are part of a $2.2 billion budget approved by the trustees at their quarterly meeting in Knoxville on Thursday.

Also on Thursday, UT President Joe DiPietro announced the appointment of Noma Anderson as a special adviser on diversity and inclusion. Anderson is dean of the UT Health Science Center College of Health Professions.

DiPietro said “a diverse and inclusive culture equals success.”

‘Make America White’ candidate revels in criticism of billboard

Tennessee politicians have lambasted a billboard declaring “Make America White Again” while Rick Tyler, the independent congressional candidate who paid for it, says that’s just what he wanted. So reports the Times-Free Press.

(T)he 58-year-old Ocoee, Tenn., restaurateur reveled in the controversy his two billboards elicited.

While both signs — the second featuring a picture of the White House festooned with Confederate flags — were taken down by the billboards’ owners Wednesday, Tyler said on his campaign website that “be assured, the response that has been engendered by the billboard is precisely what was expected and hoped for.

“You see this is not a mere publicity stunt, but rather a calculated maneuver to dispense hardcore truth while simultaneously doing an end run around the iron curtain of censorship,” the site reads.

Tyler added that his “Make America White Again” billboard was indeed a takeoff on GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.”

In a Times Free Press interview Wednesday, Tyler, principal owner of the Whitewater Grill in Ocoee, described himself as an “insurgent candidate” in the 3rd Congressional District race. Tyler said he wants to ban non-whites from emigrating legally or illegally to the U.S., deport undocumented immigrants already here and end government-support programs he says encourage non-whites to have children at taxpayer expense.

While Tyler says he is on a mission to save America and return the country to its past, Tennessee House Minority Leader Joe Towns, D-Memphis, wasn’t buying any of it, calling Tyler a “con and a psychopath.”

“He doesn’t need to lead a pack of dogs,” Towns, who is black, said of Tyler.

News release from Tennessee Republican Party
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – June 22, 2016 — Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes released the following statement regarding Independent Congressional Candidate Rick Tyler’s offensive billboards in Polk County, Tennessee:

“There’s no room for this type of hateful display in our political discourse. Racism should be rejected in all its heinous forms in the Third Congressional District and around the country.”

TN cookie-cutter reaction to Supreme immigration ruling

The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition has declared dismay over the U.S. Supreme Court deadlock that derails President Obama’s attempt to block deportation of millions of illegal immigrants and some Democrats are equally unhappy. Tennessee’s Republican congressmen are celebrating. So is Republican Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who had joined the Texas-initiated lawsuit after prodding from GOP legislators.

All, of course, echo national partisan gridlock on the issue, illustrating once again that the old cliche about of all politics being local is no longer true. Here’s a roundup of Tennessee commentary from the quickly-generated press release pile: Continue reading

Black, Carr go for 6th District gun vote with AR-15 giveaway, ad buy

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Diane Black and her chief opponent in the 6th Congressional District Republican primary, Joe Carr, offer competing approaches to solicitation of votes from firearms fans, as illustrated in the following two campaign press releases. Continue reading