The Tennessean

Tennesseans Can Watch How State Court Policy Is Made, Thanks to a First Amendment Lawsuit

December 8, 2023

(The Tennessean)—Tennesseans can now witness how the state Supreme Court’s Advisory Commission makes decisions on court policy, following a lawsuit that accused the panel of undermining “government transparency and the public trust” by not allowing members of the public, or the media, the view the taxpayer funded meetings.

The commission’s next meeting will be livestreamed at 9 a.m. CST on Friday—only the second to be open to the public after the commission closed its doors to the public sometime in 2018.

The rule preventing public attendance was temporarily struck down—pending the final outcome of the lawsuit—in March 2023, in compliance with a federal court order and preliminary injunction requiring state judicial officials and attorneys to allow access to the meetings.

The plaintiff in the case, Dan McCaleb, is the executive editor of the Center Square, a Chicago-based online news organization that focuses on state and local government issues. He is represented by the Liberty Justice Center.

The Liberty Justice Center filed the First Amendment complaint in June 2022 and sought a preliminary injunction to require the Advisory Commission to reopen their rulemaking meetings to the public.

Liberty Justice Center’s lawsuit additionally noted that the Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal equivalent of the Tennessee Judicial Conference—which is comprised of all the trial and appellate judges in the state—has allowed public access to committee meetings on proposed rules of practice, procedure, and evidence for nearly 34 years.

Buck Dougherty, senior counsel at Liberty Justice Center, said the access to the policymaking meetings was both an issue of First Amendment access and judicial fairness.

“Particularly in Tennessee, unfortunately there is still an access to justice problem,” Dougherty said. “There are a lot of people that go into court and they don’t have attorneys, because it’s very expensive.

“Then they’ve got to navigate this legal maze that, quite frankly, is difficult even for lawyers and seasoned attorneys who’ve been practicing,” he said. “So if you have more open and transparent government—see where the sausage is made—I think it helps people understand it better and hopefully with that we can fix the access to justice problem.

“Transparency is always a good thing. Sunshine is always a good thing.”

Barbara Peck, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Supreme Court and the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, said that the court could not comment on ongoing litigation.

The preliminary injunction will end in May, when the case will go to trial.

The virtual event will be available through Zoom and will also be livestreamed on the Tennessee Court’s secondary YouTube channel, TNCourts2.

Instructions for joining the Zoom meeting are available here: Tennessee Courts Advisory Commission on Rules of Practice and Procedure | December 8, 2023

The USA Today Network – Tennessee’s coverage of First Amendment issues is funded through a collaboration between the Freedom Forum and Journalism Funding Partners.