NASHVILLE — A legal challenge to a Davidson County judge's temporary restraining order that blocks new Tennessee House of Representatives' rules banning protest signs during the special legislative session on public safety will be heard Monday morning by Chancellor Anne Martin, the chancellor who issued the restraining order Friday.
Martin issued the order in response to a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee on behalf of Allison Polidor, Erica Bowton and Maryam Abolfazli, who were ejected from the House Civil Justice Subcommittee last week. It names House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, Chief House Clerk Tammy Letzler, Sergeant-at-Arms Bobby Trotter and Tennessee Highway Patrol Col. Matt Perry in their official capacities.
All three women were holding small signs protesting Republicans' refusal to consider gun control measures during the special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee. The governor's call came in the wake of an attack on The Covenant School in Nashville in which three children and three adults at the elementary school were killed by a 28-year-old former student armed with semi-automatic weapons.
Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti filed the suit on behalf of Sexton, Trotter and Perry.
"The Court should dissolve its temporary restraining order," Skrmetti said in the state's filing. "The law allows the extraordinary and drastic ex parte remedy only upon a clear showing of an entitlement to equitable relief."
An ex parte action is done in respect to or in the interests of one side only or of an interested outside party in a dispute.
"Plaintiffs have not (and cannot) carry that burden — a conclusion the State would have demonstrated had it been given an opportunity to respond before the court enjoined a co-equal branch on a mere hour's consideration," Skrmetti said in the filing
"The core question before the court is not what rules should apply ... to the special session, but rather who should decide what rules should apply. The court's rushed temporary restraining order intrudes on the core exercise of a co-equal branch's authority. The disregard for separation of powers in this instance threatens to erode the structural protections that fortify the judicial and executive branches against undue incursion by the General Assembly."
The dispute comes in the highly charged atmosphere of the special session, which starts its second week Monday amid major differences between House and Senate Republican leaders, whose ranks hold super majorities in both chambers. The atmosphere in the House has been highly charged.
House Civil Justice Subcommittee Chair Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, had ordered troopers to remove the women for continuing to hold signs.
Chris Todd remarks spark criticism
Comments made last week by Rep. Chris Todd, R-Jackson, on his bill to allow people with state-issued enhanced handgun carry permits, current and retired law enforcement officers and military members or veterans to take guns on public school campuses drew extensive criticism in the House Education Administration Committee.
"Any kind of inanimate object is a weapon," Todd told critics. If the shooter at Covenant "hadn't had a gun ... she probably would have driven over those kids when they went to recess. She would have found a way, without a doubt. And you can laugh all day long, but that's what people do."
Some parents of Covenant students walked out 0f the committee. Obtaining an enhanced handgun permit requires eight weeks of training.
"With all due respect, that is a crock of crap," Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, said.
Todd's measure, House Bill 7064, failed on a 9-9 vote.
Where is Bill Lee?
While Lee called the special session, much to the consternation of some of his fellow Republicans who dominate the General Assembly, the governor has been notably absent from the public arena during proceedings.
"This has been an important week for Tennessee," the governor said late last week in a statement as GOP House and Senate leaders continued to argue over what steps needed to be taken now and what can await lawmakers' regular session in January.
"I'm confident that both chambers can work together and make meaningful progress in this special session on public safety. Additionally, I want to thank the Covenant families for engaging and sharing their story, which brings hope in the midst of great tragedy. As our efforts continue, I am hopeful and remain committed to making Tennessee a safer place."
So what has Lee been doing?
The governor was at the Capitol all week, talking with legislators from both chambers and "following the progress closely" as lawmakers continue their work, Lee Press Secretary Elizabeth Lane Johnson said in a statement.
"As you'll recall, Gov. Lee called this special session and has been working with legislators and engaging with stakeholders all summer long," Johnson said. "He brought forward an administration package, and several bills are moving forward in both chambers."
The Senate last week passed most of the handful of bills Lee is seeking. House Republicans are seeking to do much more.