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VOL. 46 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 10, 2022

Editor sues Tennessee courts director over meeting access

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NASHVILLE (AP) — The editor of a national news website on Monday sued Tennessee's state court administrator over her February decision to close Judicial Conference meetings to the public.

In a complaint filed in federal court in Nashville, The Center Square Executive Editor Dan McCaleb asks the judge for an order declaring a Tennessee Judicial Conference meeting that begins on Wednesday to be open to the public. An emergency hearing was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.

McCaleb claims that the public has a First Amendment right of access to the meetings, arguing that they are substantially similar to United States Judicial Conference meetings. Those federal court meetings have "an enduring and historical tradition for nearly 34 years of public access to committee meetings on proposed rules of practice, procedure, and evidence," according to the lawsuit. Some committee meetings have even been broadcast on CSPAN.

The state argues in court filings that the Tennesse Judicial Conference is different from the U.S. Judicial Conference in that the state meetings are "education-centered gatherings." In addition, the right of public access applies to trials and other court proceedings, not meetings, state attorneys argue.

The meeting closure policy was promulgated by Administrative Office of the Courts Director Michelle Long in February. That 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. However, the state argues that Judicial Conference meetings have historically been closed to the public even before the new policy.

The Tennessee Judicial Conference was created by staute in 1953 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. McCaleb argues that declaring them to be open "would promote public confidence in the judiciary and transparency in the state rulemaking process."

The policy at issue states that closure is necessary to ensure the safety and security of attendees. In addition to prohibiting the public from attending, the policy also makes private the meeting dates and locations, speaker documents and conference materials, and any link to virtual meeting access.

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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