Federal Judge Rules To Keep Tennessee Judicial Conference Meetings Closed

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The Tennessee Conservative [By Jason Vaughn] –

Following testimony from an attorney for the State, U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw on Tuesday ruled that the Tennessee Judicial Conference meetings would remain closed to the public and media.

Tennessee’s Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter stated that, despite the statutory language, the meetings are restricted to educational legal sessions and that no policy decisions would be made during the conference.

The decision was handed down during an emergency hearing that came about after the executive editor of The Center Square, Dan McCaleb, sued the Director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts in an attempt to open meetings at the upcoming conference to the public and the press.

The meetings have been conducted openly, with public and press access, for nearly 34 years.

The lawsuit named Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Director Michelle Long as the defendant who put a new policy into effect in February that closed the meetings to the public.  

According to court documents, Long took this step 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.”

One such “concerning disruption” came from Investigative reporter David Tulis of 96.9 FM at the Conference in late 2021.

Although the meetings were open at the time, Tulis was asked to leave before the start of a second of three sessions on “sovereign citizens.”

Upon being asked to leave, Tulis said, “I’m not trespassing. I’m here as a member of the press.  This is a public function, paid for by taxpayers. I have a right to be here. I’m not leaving.” 

Tulis refused to stand up when ordered to do so by an officer so he was handcuffed. Opting not to drag him, due to a hernia he was suffering from, officers called EMTs that proceeded to rope him onto a gurney, place him in an ambulance and remove him from the premises.

McCaleb’s lawsuit contested that this closure of the meetings is in violation of the First Amendment because, at the conference, state court judges and committees meet about guidelines for state court policies and rules and the groups also then recommend legislation that directly impacts Tennesseans in the courtroom.

McCaleb stated, “Banning the press from observing the meetings and providing information to the public is wrong and undermines democratic government.  This conference is funded by taxpayers and the decisions made there will directly affect them. Tennesseans should be asking why state judges need to meet in secret and keep them in the dark.”

At the emergency hearing, McCaleb’s attorney, Buck Dougherty, senior attorney of the Liberty Justice Center, 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.

Dougherty said, “Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and blocking reporters from covering judicial proceedings is illegal.  It is in the interest of all Tennesseans that meetings where state court judges set rules, guidelines, and state court policies be open to the public and press. Drafting rules and policies behind closed doors on how citizens are governed in the courtroom violates the U.S. Constitution.”

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The Tennessee Judicial Conference is made up of the state’s trial court and appellate court judges, including retired judges.  By statute, 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.

Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter testified that with the exception of the election of officers and resolutions honoring deceased judges, the meetings will be entirely educational and she agreed to file the conference agenda with the court.

However, the agenda will be filed under seal because with the closure of the meetings to the public, the meeting dates and locations are also closed, along with conference materials, speaker documents and links to virtual meetings.  

Long’s new policy states that steps were necessary to ensure the security and safety of the attendees.

Judge Waverly Crenshaw voiced his skepticism of the “security” argument citing recent meetings of federal judges that had been kept open to the public and the press.

Crenshaw, however, did not issue an emergency order that would allow the public and press to be present at the conference meetings.

However, McCaleb’s lawsuit is still open and he will have the chance to argue that future meetings should be open should public policy be discussed at the conference.

Deborah Fisher of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said, “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.”

About the Author: Jason Vaughn, Media Coordinator for The Tennessee Conservative  ~ Jason previously worked for a legacy publishing company based in Crossville, TN in a variety of roles through his career.  Most recently, he served as Deputy Director for their flagship publication. Prior, he was a freelance journalist writing articles that appeared in the Herald Citizen, the Crossville Chronicle and The Oracle among others.  He graduated from Tennessee Technological University with a Bachelor’s in English-Journalism, with minors in Broadcast Journalism and History.  Contact Jason at news@TennesseeConservativeNews.com

2 thoughts on “Federal Judge Rules To Keep Tennessee Judicial Conference Meetings Closed

  • June 16, 2022 at 8:42 pm

    Anything “of God” is open and above board.
    Liable to get to the point that folks have only contempt for the judiciary.

  • June 16, 2022 at 10:19 pm

    Beware of closed door sessions! Somebody is going to get the shaft!! So much for Open door policy and Freedom of the Press??


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