NASHVILLE — With some state Republican lawmakers clamoring for a special session to direct Tennessee to sue the Obama administration over its transgender-student bathroom directive, Gov. Bill Haslam says he's not sure the state even has legal standing to do so at this point.
"I would question what's the strategy, what's the purpose of having a special session?" the Republican told reporters Wednesday. "I guess that would be one of the questions about a special session. Just exactly what are we trying to do, because currently no one is being sued [in Tennessee]?"
As a result, Haslam added, "I don't know if we actually would have standing."
The governor's comments came with various Republicans urging Haslam or State Attorney General Herbert Slatery to do something after the U.S. Justice Department first sued North Carolina over its recently enacted transgender bathroom law. Then last week, Justice and U.S. Education Department officials issued guidance to the nation's public schools along with a directive saying they could lose federal funding over gender discrimination.
Haslam has criticized the administration's move as "heavy-handed." He also has said local education officials were in the best position to decide how to treat transgender youth and didn't need federal interference.
During lawmakers' recent legislative session, Haslam was skeptical of lawmakers' efforts on a bill somewhat similar to North Carolina's. It would have restricted transgender students to use only those bathrooms matching the biological sex listed on their birth certificates. The governor said at the time that local school officials should be calling the shots. The House sponsor shelved the bill in the waning days of the session.
On Monday, a group of 26 Republican senators wrote a letter to Haslam urging some type of action. That was followed by another letter Tuesday from some Republican senators and GOP representatives to Slatery. Among other things, the second letter requested Slatery send letters to all school systems informing them the state would support them in court if their practices were challenged.
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, who wrote the second letter, noted in a Tuesday interview that the state evidently doesn't have legal standing since it hasn't been sued. But lawmakers wanted to ensure schools knew the state would legally have their backs.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glenn Casada on Tuesday began sounding out colleagues on their appetite for calling themselves into special session. Doing so would require two-thirds agreement from the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
Casada, who faces a Democratic opponent this fall, said Tuesday that one possibility would be to direct Slatery "to sue the federal government on the unconstitutional act of the U.S. attorney general. That appeals to Glenn."
Following Haslam's comments Wednesday, Casada issued a statement saying that after speaking with fellow Republicans, "I am now in the process of drafting legislation in preparation for a potential Special Session."
He said the legislation "would require the Attorney General to defend any school system that is sued due to a perceived violation of Title IX as it relates to bathrooms and locker rooms.
"By placing this requirement in code, our schools will be better suited to make decisions at a local level without the fear of burdensome lawsuits based on unconstitutional directives from the federal government," Casada added.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said late Tuesday he spoke with Slatery earlier this week regarding his own concerns about the Obama administration's actions.
"He told me that certainly if anybody wants to talk with him he didn't feel it was necessary to send a letter, they just need to call him or drop by to see him and he'd be glad enough to talk to them. So that was good enough for me," McCormick said.
McCormick said he told Slatery, "I thought men should stay out of little girls' bathrooms, and whatever we could do toward that end in a practical way I would hope he would pursue. I think that's what he wants to do. I think that's what the governor indicated in his letter, so personally, I'm not in favor of signing letters when we can pick up the phone and call these guys.
"We know them and they're on our side," McCormick added.
Republican lawmakers earlier this year passed a resolution directing Slatery to sue the federal government over its refugee resettlement program.
In response to critics' questioning whether lawmakers can legally force Slatery to sue, Republicans added a provision allowing a conservative nonprofit law firm that opposes Muslim immigration to handle the state's case for free.
Haslam has expressed reservations about ordering the attorney general to take specific actions. The governor has until Friday to decide whether to sign, veto or allow the refugee resolution to become law without his signature.
Contact Nashville Bureau writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter @AndySher1.