Federal judge declines to open Tennessee Judicial Conference to public after website editor files lawsuit

Court, law, scales of justice, Gavel, crime, judge, judgement, legal,
Court, law, scales of justice, Gavel, crime, judge, judgement, legal,

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A federal judge on Tuesday declined to order a meeting of the Tennessee Judicial Conference to be opened to the public, ruling after an attorney for the state testified the group would only engage in continuing legal education and make no policy decisions.

The decision came during an emergency hearing after the editor of a national news website filed a lawsuit on Monday seeking access to Wednesday's Judicial Conference meeting.

The lawsuit by The Center Square Executive Editor Dan McCaleb names Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Director Michelle Long as the defendant. She promulgated a policy in February declaring the meetings closed to the public. That step came in response to "a concerning disruption by several individuals at a conference in late 2021, and also, in part, to the increase in threats of violence and acts of violence directed toward judges," according to court filings.

At Tuesday's hearing, McCaleb's attorney, Buck Dougherty, argued that meetings of the Tennessee Judicial Conference are similar to the United States Judicial Conference meetings, which have been open to the public for more than 30 years.

By statute, Tennessee Judicial Conference is made up of the state's trial court and appellate court judges, including retired judges. The group is required to meet annually to consider laws and rules that "promote peace and good order in the state" and to draft legislation and submit recommendations to the General Assembly. The statute makes no mention of whether those meetings are open or closed to the public.

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Tennessee Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter argued that, despite the statutory language, in practice the conference meetings are confined to educational sessions. Many of the policy decisions have been assigned to the courts administrator. Specifically, Kleinfelter testified that the Wednesday meeting will be entirely educational with the exception of resolutions honoring deceased judges and the election of officers. Kleinfelter agreed to file the meeting agenda with the court.

It will be filed under seal because the policy closing the meeting to the public also makes private the meeting dates and locations, speaker documents and conference materials, and any link to virtual meeting access. The policy states that these steps are necessary to ensure the safety and security of attendees.

U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw seemed skeptical of the security argument, noting that a recent meeting of federal judges was open to the public.

"I'm just pointing out that federal judges have done it without a problem," he said.

Although Crenshaw did not issue an emergency order granting access to the Wednesday meeting, the lawsuit will continue and McCaleb will have a chance to make the argument that future meetings should be open if the conference discusses public policy.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Director Deborah Fisher said there is a legitimate public interest in what happens at the meetings.

"It seems like an overreach to close the whole thing and not let the press attend, at least, the parts where they discuss rules and what legislation they are going to send to the General Assembly," she said. Fisher added that allowing the public to watch meetings via livestream would likely address the safety concerns.

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