Two Hamilton County residents sued county commissioners and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor in federal court today for prayers the body holds before its meetings, according to the Chattanooga TFP. The complaint, filed by Attorney Robin Flores on behalf of Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, argues that the prayers violate rights guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In May, Patrick Elliott, an attorney with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to commissioners, asking them to discontinue prayers before meetings, citing the regular use of “in Jesus’ name” to conclude official prayers.
Commissioners have taken no official action to consider the letter or change their practice.
Taylor last week said he’d reviewed the letter and would advise commissioners at the appropriate time. The following day, he personally led the prayer, closing with a similar invocation of Christ
— Note: The practice of opening meetings with prayer, of course, is widespread among Tennessee political bodies — the rule rather than the exception. The state House and Senate, for example, have a “minister of the day” who opens each session with a prayer.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A secular group has asked the Hamilton County Commission to discontinue opening its meetings with prayer.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter to commissioners on Monday stated a local person complained about the practice.
The group argues the local prayer practices “flagrantly exceed” constraints of a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/KfDcnK ) reported Commission Chairman Larry Henley asked County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to review the issue.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation website says the group promotes the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.
CHATTANOOGA (AP) — Officials with the state Education Department and the Hamilton County School Board are pointing blame at each other for declaring a recent meeting closed to the public.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that public notice of Thursday’s meeting between the board and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was issued to the media last week. But when reporters tried to gain access to the meeting, they were denied (http://bit.ly/ygHHU4 ).
Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said local officials had decided to close the meeting because the panel was discussing a competitive grant. But school board chairman Mike Evatt and Superintendent Rick Smith said the meeting was closed at Huffman’s request.
Evatt said he saw no need for the panel to meet in executive session.
“It wasn’t my call,” Smith said. “It was the commissioner’s call.”
The meeting also included representatives of the local teachers’ union, the Public Education Foundation and school administrators.
Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said that the state’s Sunshine Law operates on the presumption of openness, and makes only limited allowances for executive sessions.
Flanagan noted that the first line of the state’s open meetings act declares that Tennessee’s policy is “that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
The discussion at Thursday’s meeting focused on whether the county should apply for the state’s School Innovation Zone that would give them more flexibly to operate failing schools, such as offering longer school days.
Huffman said in an earlier speech to the Chattanooga Rotary Club that he hoped the county would apply for the grant worth $30 million to $40 million.
“The idea is that districts would figure out what autonomy and flexibilities they would give to schools in the innovation zone,” Huffman said.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon died Thursday at his home in Signal Mountain. He was 60.
County Commissioner Mitch McClure told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that Moon was found near his computer by his wife at their home early Thursday. (http://bit.ly/yLNtNV )
Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox in confirming a court clerk’s report of Moon’s death said it was a shock and described him as a “tremendous public servant.”
Moon served as judge in Signal Mountain before being appointed a general sessions court judge in 1996.
An avid outdoorsman and advocate for youth programs, Moon was also outspoken about illegal drugs, guns in schools and gangs.
Tennessee General Sessions Judges Conference President Ben Hall McFarlin said in a statement that Moon would be missed and “served on the bench with great honor and dignity for many years. He was also adept at striking the right balance between serving the court, his community and spending time doing the things he enjoyed with the people he loved.”
Moon during an election campaign described general sessions court as “one of the most important courts in our legal system. The court disposes of both civil and criminal cases and personally touches the lives of more citizens in a single day than any other court. It is truly the people’s court and formulates the opinions of more people about our judicial system than any other court.”
Earlier this month Moon was reprimanded by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary on three complaints, including that he didn’t allow a defendant to receive proper counsel in his courtroom.
“Although, there is a respectful, but definitive, difference of opinion in the interpretation and applicability of the law and legal opinions relevant to these issues, the Court of the Judiciary is there to assist us and to make us better judges,” Moon said in a statement afterward.
Moon was a lifelong resident of Hamilton County. He graduated from Chattanooga High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He earned his law degree at then-Memphis State University
Text of a letter of public reprimand sent to Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Robert L. Moon from the state Court of the Judiciary, as provided to media by the Administrative Office of the Courts:
Dear Judge Moon:
This letter shall serve as a public letter of reprimand pursuant to your agreement with an investigative panel of this Court.
The reprimand relates to three complaints, one of which was filed by Judge Rebecca Stem, one of which was filed by Attorney Hiram (Hark) Hill, and one of which was filed by Attorney Benjamin L. McGowan.
The pertinent portion of the complaint filed by Judge Rebecca Stem concerns a preliminary hearing, over which you presided, in which you threatened to have a young woman, who was a reluctant victim-witness of a domestic assault, handcuffed and arrested if she did not testify in a manner which you considered to be truthful.
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A Hamilton County judge has been issued a public reprimand by Tennessee Court of the Judiciary after the court determined he twice violated judicial ethics, reports the Chattanooga TFP. Hamilton County General Sessions Judge David Bales received two complaints earlier this year, one from Judge Rebecca Stern and the other from local attorney Hank Hill. Public reprimands by the judiciary court are rare. Only two other Tennessee judges have been issued reprimands this year, and only three were issued in 2010, according to the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary. Bales acknowledged that he made mistakes and said he would “strive to not make mistakes in the future.”
“I, at all times, tried to rule fairly and impartially for all citizens,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, and I am human like everyone else. I admit I have made mistakes in these two matters.”
…The first incident happened in November 2010, when Bales set a bond of $70,000 in a domestic assault and false imprisonment case without the defendant or his attorney present.
…In the second incident, Bales set a bond of $1 million in a murder case in March. Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman reduced the bond to $250,000.
A copy of the reprimand is available HERE.
Hamilton County Commissioner Fred Skillern acknowledges to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press that he made this remark to three other white men with him in an elevator after the commission voted down a resolution calling for repeal of Tennessee voter photo ID law:
“Why don’t we go back to the Constitution when the only voters were white male property owners?”
Skillern, a Republican, says he was “just kidding” with the remark, addressed toward Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith. If so, the remark apparently didn’t inspire any laughter from Smith or the other men aboard the elevator.
(Local Democratic party activist Phil) Phillips said Skillern’s statement was “seemingly overstated” and took him aback.
“It was kind of like guys stand around locker rooms and tell dirty jokes,” he said. “It shocked me that he would say that in front of someone he just met 10 seconds ago.”
Skillern said Phillips and Smith took his statement out of context. Skillern supports voting rights for all law-abiding U.S. citizens, regardless of skin color or sex, he said.
“We just go back and forth with each other all the time,” Skillern said of Smith.
Skillern said he was making the point that the Constitution has been amended and voting rights laws have changed a number of times throughout U.S. history. “They’re acting like it’s never been changed before,” he said.
County commissioners don’t have the authority to change state law, and Skillern said he wouldn’t support a change even if they did.
Homeless Man Gets the Runaround?From Chas Sisk:
Al Star, a Nashville homeless man, says he got the runaround from the Department of Safety when he attempted a few days before Thanksgiving to apply for a free state identification to vote, eventually having to call an aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper before receiving the ID. Star, 59, says a clerk at the Department of Safety’s office in the Snodgrass building near the Capitol initially refused to issue him a free ID to replace his lost driver’s license, saying instead that he would have to pay $12 for a replacement. Star says he told the clerk that he no longer needed a driver’s license because he doesn’t own a car and had stated clearly on his application that he only wanted an ID to vote. Hamilton Commissioners Seek Repeal
Two Hamilton County commissioners pleaded with other members of their body Thursday to ask the state Legislature to repeal the voter ID law it passed earlier this year, reports the Chattanooga TFP. Though commissioners will not vote on the resolution until Wednesday, they discussed the matter in an agenda session Thursday. Commissioners Greg Beck and Warren Mackey asked the others to help repeal the law.
The federal government is spending billions of dollars fighting wars in places such as Iraq to give citizens of those countries the right to vote, Beck said. Yet soldiers from Tennessee returning home might see their own grandparents turned away at the polls because they don’t have the proper ID, he said.
“Do you know that it’s easier for old people to vote over [in Iraq] than it is here?” he asked. “It used to be that easy for us to vote.” More Fame for Dorothy Cooper
Dorothy Cooper, the 96-year-old Chattanooga resident denied her photo ID for voting in October, is becoming the national emblem in the Democratic fight against state voter identification laws, according to the Chattanooga TFP. The Democratic National Committee rolled out www.protectingthevote.org Thursday and released a report on laws affecting voting rights across the states. The site attacks new voter ID laws across the country and features Cooper, who was turned away in October from a local Tennessee Department of Safety Driver Services Center.
Republicans say the bill has tremendous support across the state and is needed to ensure confidence in elections.
“I never knew it’d cause this much fuss,” Cooper said when reached by phone Thursday. “When I started I thought I was going to get my card and that would be it.”
…Will Crossley, the Democratic National Committee counsel and director of voter protection, said the Democratic National Committee chose to highlight Cooper to show how the laws are “unnecessary and essentially arbitrary,” and that “someone who has been voting for 70-something years would suddenly have her identity questioned.”
The superintendent of Union County schools, who oversees a new “virtual school” operation operated by a private company under a new state law, tells Andy Sher that some other school systems are not approving transfers of their students to the virtual school. In issue are students who missed a deadline.
As previously reported, more than 1,000 students seeking to enroll in the virtual school have been unable to do so for one reason or another. Denial of transfer is one reason. Under state law, (Superintendent Wayne) Goforth said, students seeking to transfer after the open enrollment date “have to seek the approval of the sending district, and that has caused us a lot of ups and downs.”
“A lot of times the directors don’t want to give permission for them to leave,” Goforth said. “And that’s their choice. I guess they don’t want to lose their [state] funding because in Tennessee, the funding follows the child.”
He estimated the county receives about $5,300 in state funds for every child who attends the Tennessee Virtual Academy. Goforth said he hears from parents that “one of the main” systems denying approval of late transfers is the Hamilton County schools system.
Hamilton County Schools Director Rick Smith said he has denied approving the transfers of 14 students, who were enrolled in the local school system last year, because their applications were late.
He said he only got an email from Goforth on Aug. 6 — days after the July 24 transfer deadline — listing 26 students seeking a late transfer.
Twelve had not been public school students at all, Smith said, and presumably had attended private schools or were being home-schooled. He said he had no authority regarding them.
Smith said after talking to parents of students and parents of those outside the public school system, he learned that families learned about the Tennessee Virtual Academy at various times following an advertising and promotion push by K12.
Smith said the district abides by deadlines for Hamilton County parents wishing to get their children into the system’s highly desirable magnet schools. It should be no different in approving late transfers.
He noted he has no idea how many local students might have applied and enrolled in the Tennessee Virtual Academy prior to the July 24 deadline. The system has no power over their transfer, he said.