Monthly Archives: April 2016

Revealing Disturbing Gap in Tennessee Law, Tennessee Supreme Court Rules that Allegedly Retarded Death Row Inmate Is Not Entitled to Prove that He’s Retarded

By Daniel Horwitz:

Pervis Payne is a death row inmate in Tennessee who may well be mentally retarded.  Significantly, both the United States and Tennessee Constitutions forbid the Government from executing mentally retarded people.  In a unanimous 4-0 opinion, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that under Tennessee law, Mr. Payne is not allowed to prove that he is mentally retarded to a court.

Pervis Payne was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1988.  Thereafter, both the Tennessee Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that under the Tennessee and U.S. Constitutions, executing mentally retarded people is cruel, unusual, and categorically forbidden.  Additionally, in 1990, the Tennessee legislature enacted a law providing that: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no defendant with mental retardation at the time of committing first degree murder shall be sentenced to death.”[1]  Following these developments, an individual cannot lawfully be executed if the individual has:

(1) Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning as evidenced by a functional intelligence quotient (I.Q.) of seventy (70) or below;

(2) Deficits in adaptive behavior; and

(3) The [individual’s] intellectual disability . . . manifested during the developmental period, or by eighteen (18) years of age.

Because all of these legal developments came only after Mr. Payne’s conviction, however, Mr. Payne has never had a hearing on the issue of his alleged mental retardation.  Nonetheless, there is strong reason to believe that he is indeed mentally retarded.  Among other indications, for example, Mr. Payne’s scores from multiple IQ tests administered between 1976 and 2010 all place him within or very near the range of mental retardation.  Significantly, one IQ test that was administered when he was nine years old produced a raw IQ score of 69.  If accurate, such a score would definitely establish Mr. Payne’s mental retardation so long as Mr. Payne could also prove that he has deficits in adaptive behavior.

After reviewing several of Mr. Payne’s IQ tests and evaluating Mr. Payne personally, Dr. Daniel J. Reschly—a professor of education and psychology at Vanderbilt University—recently stated in a sworn affidavit that Mr. Payne “has significant deficits in adaptive behavior due to substantial limitations in the conceptual skills and practical skills domain.”  Based on Mr. Payne’s consistently low IQ scores, his deficits in adaptive behavior, and the fact that Mr. Payne has been intellectually disabled since he was a child, Dr. Reschly also concluded under oath that Mr. Payne satisfies the established constitutional criteria for mental retardation, which would prohibit the Government from executing him.

Armed with this evidence, on April 4, 2012, Mr. Payne’s attorneys attempted to invoke several different procedures under Tennessee law in an effort to win Mr. Payne an evidentiary hearing on his mental retardation claim.  However, the trial court summarily denied all of Mr. Payne’s claims without holding a hearing.  Ultimately, the case reached the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In adjudicating Mr. Payne’s case, the Tennessee Supreme Court was called upon to decide what procedural mechanism Mr. Payne might use to go about proving that he is mentally retarded.  Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that as far as Tennessee law is concerned, no such procedure exists.

a.  Standard Post-Conviction Claim

Under Tennessee law, the traditional procedure for challenging a conviction that has become final is to file a “post-conviction petition.”  Post-conviction petitions are governed by Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-101, which is appropriately called the “Post-Conviction Procedure Act.”  Because Tennessee law recognizes what the Tennessee Supreme Court has described as the Government’s “interest[] in preserving the finality of judgments,”[2] however, only certain claims are eligible for consideration.  Specifically, in order to obtain post-conviction relief, defendants must prove that either their convictions or their sentences violate a right that is “guaranteed by the Constitution of Tennessee or the Constitution of the United States.”[3]

Notably, the Post-Conviction Procedure Act also imposes a strict one-year statute of limitations for filing post-conviction petitions.  Specifically, Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-102(a) provides that absent exceptional circumstances, a defendant’s post-conviction petition must be filed “within one (1) year of the date on which the judgment became final, or [else] consideration of the petition shall be barred.”  In more cases than not, this one-year statute of limitations operates to foreclose defendants from getting their claims into court at all regardless of their merit.  Why, one might wonder?  The answer is that most defendants in Tennessee are not aware of the strict one-year requirement, and since convicted defendants generally do not have the right to an attorney until after they have filed a post-conviction petition, they often learn about the one-year limitations period only after it has expired.[4]

With respect to the first requirement—that a conviction or sentence violate either the U.S. or Tennessee Constitutions—Mr. Payne’s claim unquestionably qualified.  In December of 2001, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that “the execution of a mentally retarded individual violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, § 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.”[5]  Barely six months later, in June of 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, holding that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”[6]  Thus, because Mr. Payne asserted that his death sentence was unconstitutional in light of his mental retardation, this claim qualified for post-conviction review.

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, these constitutional developments came more than a decade after he was convicted.  Accordingly, the traditional one-year requirement for filing a post-conviction petition had long expired.  As a consequence, Tennessee law prohibited Mr. Payne from having his post-conviction claim heard by a court unless he could “re-open” his post-conviction proceeding by proving that the new rule at issue applies retroactively.

b.  “Re-opening” a Post-Conviction Claim Under Retroactivity Exception

The question of whether a new constitutional rule of criminal procedure applies retroactively is one of the most complex inquiries in constitutional law.  It has also repeatedly befuddled the Tennessee Supreme Court, which has reversed itself on the issue at least four times in the past twenty years[7] only to arrive—in 2014—at a standard that conspicuously conflicts with the text of the standard that it was attempting to adopt.[8]  During the intervening chaos, the Court of Criminal Appeals occasionally applied multiple retroactivity standards to defendants’ claims because it could not parse the Tennessee Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the matter.[9]

At present, however, the statutory retroactivity standard codified in the Post-Conviction Procedure Act governs retroactivity claims.[10]  This statute provides that new rules apply retroactively if they either: (1) “place[] primary, private individual conduct beyond the power of the criminal law-making authority to proscribe,” or (2) “require[] the observance of fairness safeguards that are implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.”  Confusingly, however, with respect to the second rule, the Court held in 2014 that the Tennessee legislature actually intended to adopt “the federal standard from Teague v. Lane,” rather than the “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty” standard that actually appears in the statute.[11]  Thus, at present, the text of the second portion of Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-122 is to be ignored in favor of the second Teague v. Lane exception, which provides that retroactivity attaches to “new procedures without which the likelihood of an accurate conviction is seriously diminished.”[12]

Mercifully, the federal judiciary has held unmistakably that the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on executing mentally retarded people applies retroactively to all cases because it places the Government’s ability to execute a certain class of people beyond the Government’s power.[13]  Consequently, there is no doubt that both the Tennessee Supreme Court’s December 2001 decision prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded people and the U.S. Supreme Court’s similar June 2002 decision apply retroactively to Mr. Payne.  Accordingly, one might be forgiven for believing that Mr. Payne would be entitled to a hearing on his mental retardation claim.

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the aforementioned statute that allows defendants to “re-open” their post-conviction petitions when a new rule is retroactive also provides that even “if retrospective application of [a] right is required,” the petition to re-open the case “must be filed within one (1) year of the ruling of the highest state appellate court or the United States supreme court establishing a constitutional right that was not recognized as existing at the time of trial[.]”[14]  Whether it violates fundamental fairness to apply such a strict time limitation—or any time limitation—to mentally retarded people; and whether the Government is even permitted to leverage short, strict statutes of limitations in order to insulate itself from otherwise meritorious claims that the Government is attempting to act in excess of its constitutional authority are serious questions for another day.  In this case, however, because Mr. Payne did not file his post-conviction petition until 2012, the court held that his claim was time-barred.  Had he filed his claim at any time between December 2001 and June 2003, though, then there is absolutely no question that he would have been granted relief.

Undiscouraged, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also attempted to use the U.S. Supreme Court’s more recent decision in Hall v. Florida as the “hook” to allow him to get back into court.  In Hall—which was decided in May 2014—the Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty statute because it failed to account for standard error in a defendant’s IQ scores.  According to the Supreme Court, such a rigid requirement “misuse[d] IQ score on its own terms[.]”[15]  Thus, following Hall, “when a defendant’s IQ test score falls within the test’s acknowledged and inherent margin of error, the defendant must be able to present additional evidence of intellectual disability, including testimony regarding adaptive deficits.”[16]

Consequently, the question for Mr. Payne became whether the rule announced in Hall was retroactive, too.  Given its recency, only two courts in the United States had addressed this issue at the time that Mr. Payne’s case was heard, and each reached a bitterly contested, 2-1 decision under the time-pressure of an imminent execution.[17]  In both cases, a two-judge majority concluded that Hall was not retroactive because it merely established new procedures for determining whether a defendant was mentally retarded, rather than establishing another substantive restriction on punishment.

There are, however, strong reasons to doubt this claim.  Most convincingly, Hall unquestionably restricted the universe of people that the Government is permitted to execute—a result that bears all the hallmarks of a substantive ruling.  Specifically, before Hall, individuals with an IQ above 70 were subject to being executed.  After Hall, however, some number of individuals with an IQ above 70 are constitutionally prohibited from being executed.  Like Atkins, such a result is one of substance in that it “prohibit[s] a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status or offense.”[18]

Unfortunately, the Tennessee Supreme Court did not engage any of this analysis.  Instead, it merely held that because Mr. Payne was unable to identify any “federal appellate decision holding that Hall must be applied retroactively to cases on collateral review,” the court “decline[d] to hold that Hall applies retroactively.”  Consequently, Mr. Payne was not permitted to re-open his post-conviction proceeding on the basis of Hall’s retroactivity, either.

c.  Writ of Error Coram Nobis

As an alternative to the post-conviction statute, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also filed a petition for writ of error coram nobis.  Historically, the common law writ of error coram nobis has served as a “gap-filler” which was invoked “to rectify a recognized wrong when all other possible remedies are no longer available.”[19]  In Tennessee, for example, the writ has been used to correct judgments upon the subsequent discovery of a factual error “which, if known at the time of judgment, would have prevented the judgment from being pronounced.”[20]

Subsequently, however, the Tennessee legislature enacted a coram nobis statute that significantly limited the writ’s application.  Among other things, the legislature imposed a one-year statute of limitations for coram nobis actions and restricted the relief that it provides to factual errors only (rather than legal errors).[21]  It has never been clear whether the statutory writ of coram nobis operated to replace and supersede the common law writ,[22] and indeed, the answer to that question is still not entirely clear even following the Court’s decision in Payne.[23]  Given the one-year statute of limitations contained in the writ of error coram nobis statute, however—and after indicating that Mr. Payne’s claim was more appropriately characterized as a legal claim rather than a factual one—the Court denied Mr. Payne coram nobis relief as well.

d.  Free-Standing Claim Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203

Positing yet another procedural vehicle for his claim, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also argued that he had a free-standing claim under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 (the “Intellectually Disabled Defendants/Capital Punishment” statute), which was enacted approximately one year after Mr. Payne was convicted.  In pertinent part, this statute provides that: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, no defendant [who was mentally retarded] at the time of committing first degree murder shall be sentenced to death.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court already ruled on the retroactivity of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 back in 2001.  In that case, the court concluded that “although the issue as to retroactive application of the statute [wa]s close,”[24] Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 only applied prospectively.  Disappointingly, the court’s analysis on this point completely failed to engage the question of whether Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 was substantive or procedural, which is traditionally what governs the inquiry under Tennessee law.[25]  Notably, the case also serves as a prime example of why the late Justice Scalia railed against the use of legislative history in interpreting statutes—which can frequently be manipulated to arrive at whatever decision a reviewing judge would prefer to reach.

Specifically, when it decided the issue in 2001, the court noted that during the 1990 legislative session, a specific amendment was introduced in the State Senate that would have explicitly provided that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 applied only prospectively.[26]  The amendment failed and was withdrawn, which one might think would suggest that the legislature disagreed with it and wanted the statute to apply retroactively.  Not so, apparently.  After hypothesizing that “the legislature’s failure to clearly provide for retroactive operation may have been a product of oversight or may have been based on the assumption that no prisoner then on death row was mentally retarded,” the court concluded that “notwithstanding the presence of some ambiguous language in the statute and in the legislative history, there is no evidence of a clear legislative intent to apply the statute retroactively as required by the general rule.”[27]  Accordingly, the court held that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 applied only to cases after July 1, 1990.

Revisiting this issue again in Mr. Payne’s case, the Tennessee Supreme Court reaffirmed its 2001 holding in Van Tran that Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203 does not apply retroactively.  Yet again, however, the Tennessee Supreme Court failed to ask whether the statute at issue was merely remedial in nature, which this author finds somewhat baffling.  Interestingly, the Court’s position that the Intellectually Disabled Defendants/Capital Punishment statute does not apply retroactively also shifted from a “close [call]” to an “inescapable conclusion” in Mr. Payne’s case.  Regardless, however, the end result was the same.  According to the court:  “[Mr. Payne] failed to establish that he has a private cause of action to pursue his claim of [mental retardation] pursuant to the intellectual disability statute.”

e.  Additional procedures?

According to a footnote in the court’s opinion, Mr. Payne’s attorneys also claimed that he had a right to an evidentiary hearing on his mental retardation claim under three other procedures available in Tennessee law: a declaratory judgment action; a motion to vacate an illegal sentence; and/or a petition for writ of audita querela.  The court declined to rule on any of these potential claims, however, as the record before it did not indicate that Mr. Payne had yet tried to pursue them.  Even so, the court implied that these procedures would not allow Mr. Payne to obtain an evidentiary hearing on his claim of mental retardation, either.  Accordingly, the court concluded its opinion by “encourag[ing] the General Assembly to consider whether another appropriate procedure should be enacted to enable defendants condemned to death prior to the enactment of the intellectual disability statute to seek a determination of their eligibility to be executed.”

It seems extremely unlikely that the General Assembly will accept this invitation.  Accordingly, as far as mentally retarded defendants who received death sentences after 1990 (and who did not have the benefit of effective counsel between 2001 and 2003) are concerned, the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment exist only in theory as a matter of Tennessee law.  Notably, however, this very likely does not mean that they will be executed.  Instead, it just means that Tennessee’s courts won’t hear the matter, and that federal courts will have to clean up the omission.

Read the Tennessee Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion in Payne v. Tennessee here.

Questions about this article?  Email Daniel Horwitz at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com.

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[1] 1990 Tenn. Pub. Acts 730, ch. 1038, § 1, codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-13-203(b) (2014).

[2] Sample v. State, 82 S.W.3d 267, 282 (Tenn. 2002).

[3] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-103.

[4] Occasionally, defendants also encounter some threshold procedural obstacles to filing post-conviction petitions that prevent them from meeting this deadline (not the least of which is trying to practice law without the assistance of an attorney).  For example, although notarization is not required by statute, the standard form for post-conviction petitions inexplicably requires a notary, and prisons are often slow to provide access to them.  Additionally, incarcerated defendants generally require a minimum degree of cooperation from prisons in order to file a post-conviction petition by mail, and in some instances, prison staff have been rumored to obstruct inmates from doing so.

[5] Van Tran v. State, 66 S.W.3d 790, 812 (Tenn. 2001)

[6] Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321, 122 S. Ct. 2242, 2252, 153 L. Ed. 2d 335 (2002) (quotation omitted).

[7] Compare Meadows v. State, 849 S.W.2d 748, 755 (Tenn. 1993) (“we decline to apply the federal standard of retroactivity announced in Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 109 S.Ct. 1060, 103 L.Ed.2d 334 (1989), and hold that a new state constitutional rule is to be retroactively applied to a claim for post-conviction relief if the new rule materially enhances the integrity and reliability of the fact finding process of the trial.”); with Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 811 (appearing to hold that Meadows standard applies despite state statute adopting Teague standard); with Keen v. State, 398 S.W.3d 594, 601 (Tenn. 2012) (appearing to equate Meadows standard and Teague standard); with Bush v. State, 428 S.W.3d 1, 15 (Tenn. 2014) (expressly acknowledging difference between Meadows standard and Teague standard, holding that Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-122 codifies Teague standard, and holding that statutory standard prevails).

[8] See Daniel A. Horwitz, Twelve Angry Hours: Improving Domestic Violence Holds in Tennessee Without Risk of Violating the Constitution, 10 Tenn. J.L. & Pol’y 215, 232 (2015) (noting that “[r]ather than applying the comparatively broad retroactivity standard that had in fact been included in the Post-Conviction Procedure Act, the Bush court instead held that an even narrower [] standard–which the court summarily concluded that the legislature must have “intended” to enact based upon a pair of confused statements made by the bill’s House sponsor nineteen years earlier–would henceforth govern retroactivity law in Tennessee.”), available at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2564583.

[9] See, e.g., Bush v. State, No. M2011-02133-CCA-R3PC, 2012 WL 2308280 *6-9 (Tenn. Crim. App. June 15, 2012).

[10] Bush v. State, 428 S.W.3d 1, 20 (Tenn. 2014).

[11] Id.

[12] Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288, 313, 109 S. Ct. 1060, 1077, 103 L. Ed. 2d 334 (1989).

[13] See, e.g., In re Holladay, 331 F.3d 1169, 1173 (11th Cir. 2003) (“there is no question that the new constitutional rule abstractly described in Penry and formally articulated in Atkins is retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.”); Hill v. Anderson, 300 F.3d 679, 681 (6th Cir. 2002) (“In Atkins, the Supreme Court held at the end of its term that executing a mentally retarded individual violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishments. This holding applies retroactively; in Penry v. Lynaugh, when the question was last before it, the Court recognized that a constitutional rule barring execution of the retarded would fall outside Teague v. Lane’s ban on retroactive application of new constitutional rules because it placed the ability to execute the retarded ‘beyond the State’s power.’”) (internal citation omitted).

[14] Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-102(b)(1).

[15] Hall v. Florida, 134 S. Ct. 1986, 2001, 188 L. Ed. 2d 1007 (2014).

[16] Id.

[17] See Goodwin v. Steele, Nos. 14-3739, 14-3743, 2014 WL 11128597, at *2 (8th Cir. Dec. 9, 2014) (per curiam); In re Henry, 757 F.3d 1151, 1159-61 (11th Cir. 2014).

[18] Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 728, 193 L. Ed. 2d 599 (2016), as revised (Jan. 27, 2016) (internal quotations omitted); Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 321 (2002) (“the Constitution places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life of a mentally retarded offender.”) (internal quotations omitted).

[19] Wlodarz v. State, 361 S.W.3d 490, 499 (Tenn. 2012).

[20] State v. Mixon, 983 S.W.2d 661, 667 (Tenn. 1999)

[21] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-26-105; Tenn. Code Ann. § 27-7-102 & 103.  It is not clear that the criminal coram nobis statute – which mentions neither factual errors nor a statute of limitations period – actually compels this result, but the Tennessee Supreme Court has held as much nonetheless.

[22] To the author’s knowledge, the Tennessee Supreme Court also has never opined on whether a legislative effort to limit the application of a common law judicial writ would violate the Tennessee Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.

[23] The Court suggests that the answer is “yes,” however, holding that an earlier case containing language that suggested considerably broader coram nobis relief than the coram nobis statute provides “d[id] not provide the Petitioner with a common law remedy in coram nobis.”

[24] Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 798.

[25] See, e.g., Shell v. State, 893 S.W.2d 416, 419 (Tenn. 1995) (“statutes affecting only the method or the procedure for prosecuting or defending a cause of action may be applied retroactively.  A remedial or procedural statute is one that does not affect the vested rights or liabilities of the parties.”).

[26] Van Tran, 66 S.W.3d at 798.

[27] Id.

Tennessee’s February 2016 Bar Results Released: Vanderbilt Reclaims Top Spot, Nashville School of Law Performs Poorly Again

The results of the February 2016 Tennessee bar exam are out.  Following a July 2015 exam that saw Belmont University post the highest passage rate of all Tennessee law schools, Vanderbilt Law School has reclaimed its fairly consistent place on top of the pile with a 92.31% overall passage rate and a 100% passage rate for first-time takers.  Among re-takers, four of five Vanderbilt graduates passed the February 2016 exam, good for an 80% passage rate among those taking the test for a second time or more.

On the other side of the coin, Nashville School of Law registered its second abysmal performance in a row, posting only a 30.08% overall passage rate and a frighteningly low 17.1% passage rate among re-takers.  First-time NSL graduates performed slightly better, however, registering a cumulative passage rate of 47.1%.

Overall, Tennessee’s passage rate for all takers from all law schools combined was just 51.06%, reflecting both a bar exam that has become more difficult in recent years and a decrease in the quality of recent law school graduates.  Driven by a rapid decrease in law school applicants over the past several years (the total number of law school applicants has declined precipitously since 2010, falling from a high of 87,900 to a low of 54,130 in 2015), the academic credentials of incoming law students have measurably decreased.  Controversially, many law schools have responded to this problem (and the corresponding loss of revenue) by decreasing their admissions standards, which has predictably resulted in lower bar passage rates post-graduation.

The complete bar passage results from Tennessee’s February 2016 bar exam, available at the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners’ website, are copied below.

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Op Ed: Veto bill aimed at quelling sexual harassment claims

From today’s Tennessean, my op ed on proposed civil fee-shifting for claims against government officials:

___________________________________________________________________________

By Daniel Horwitz:

Imagine being a young legislative aide who is on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances by her employer, a prominent state representative.  He frequently comments on your appearance and suggests that you start dressing in more revealing clothing.  He calls you late at night and asks you to meet him at local bars while his wife thinks he’s working.  One day, he summons you to his office, shuts the door, and gropes you.  When you resist, he warns you not to tell anyone.  The next day, after you decline his request to come in for another “private meeting,” he fires you.

What do you do?  If you can prove what happened in court, of course, then you can hold him accountable.  But if you sue, you also fear repercussions.  What will happen to your career?  Do you want a long, high-profile legal battle, and can you even afford one against someone who has the government’s vast resources at his disposal?  What if a jury doesn’t believe you?

One way that society attempts to correct this power imbalance is by requiring government wrongdoers to pay a victim’s legal fees if the victim’s lawsuit is successful.  Federal and state laws commonly include such “fee-shifting” provisions in order to incentivize people to file suit when their constitutional or civil rights have been violated.  Notably, such provisions also play an important role in promoting public policy, since society has a strong interest in rooting out misconduct like sexual harassment even when a victim’s monetary damages are insubstantial.

Following the legislature’s recent approval of SB2377/HB1679, however, Tennessee is on the verge of taking the opposite approach: requiring alleged victims to pay the government’s legal fees if a lawsuit against a government official is unsuccessful.  Significantly, this penalty also is not restricted to claims that are deemed frivolous or unfounded; instead, it would apply no matter why the allegations failed.  For example, even if a victim withdraws a lawsuit voluntarily because she runs out of money to keep fighting it, she would still be required to pay the government a crippling monetary penalty.

Like many lawsuits, sexual harassment claims frequently cost hundreds of thousand dollars to litigate.  It is also safe to assume that most people don’t have that kind of money lying around, so individuals who fail to win a lawsuit against state employees will often be forced to declare bankruptcy.  Tellingly, the legislature’s own fiscal impact report acknowledges this reality, stating that “there will not be a significant number of attorneys’ fee awards collected as a result of the bill.”  Consequently, SB2377/HB1679 cannot honestly be described as an effort to reimburse taxpayers for successfully defending against frivolous lawsuits, as its Senate sponsor Mike Bell claimed.  Instead, it’s a deliberate attempt to deter victims from bringing government officials’ wrongdoing to light in the first place.

The immediate effect of such a change will be to discourage victims of official misconduct from pursuing their claims in court at all.  Remarkably, this naked attempt to intimidate victims was also the top legislative priority of Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who is supposed to be the one individual above all in Tennessee who is tasked with protecting the public interest.

Even more disturbingly, General Slatery promoted this “reform” while his office was supposed to be conducting an investigation into alleged misconduct by State Representative Jeremy Durham, who recently resigned his leadership post after being accused of sexually harassing three women who work at the statehouse.  Astoundingly, General Slatery has also stated unequivocally and without embarrassment that the purpose of SB2377/HB1679 is to ensure that such victims “have something at risk” if they decide to file suit.

It is difficult to overstate just how troubling it is that the Attorney General’s primary response to sexual harassment at the state Capitol has been to try to sweep it under the rug.  Simply put, General Slatery’s effort to intimidate victims in this manner is shameful, and it is beneath the dignity of his office.

The proper response to wrongdoing by government officials is to root it out, to punish it, and to prevent it from occurring in the first place—not to use the threat of bankruptcy to deter victims from coming forward.  Regrettably, SB2377/HB1679 would do, and is intended to do, just that.  It should be vetoed by Governor Haslam accordingly.

Daniel A. Horwitz is an attorney in Nashville.  Reach him at daniel.a.horwitz@gmail.com and @Scot_Blog.

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