Tag Archives: Tennessee Constitutional Law

Tennessee Supreme Court Releases Trio of Decisions Restricting Criminal Defendants’ Rights

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Late last week, the Tennessee Supreme Court issued a trio of critically important decisions on criminal-constitutional issues.  Continuing a recent trend on the topic, criminal defendants got walloped.

1. Further Restricting Coram Nobis Relief

In Nunley v. State of Tennessee, the Court significantly restricted the measure of relief available under the writ of error coram nobis.  Coram nobis is a procedural vehicle used to help remedy wrongful convictions based on new evidence that is discovered after a defendant has been convicted.  Regrettably, the Court’s unanimous decision in Nunley narrowed the writ’s already limited scope even further.

Nunley involved a defendant who was convicted of aggravated rape in 1998 and alleged that DNA testing proved that he was innocent of the crime.  Mr. Nunley further alleged that in 2014, he discovered that the State had withheld critical exculpatory evidence when the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office included four previously-undisclosed exhibits in a responsive pleading that it filed in opposition to his petition for DNA testing under the Post-Conviction DNA Analysis Act.

Upon review, the Court rejected Mr. Nunley’s plea for relief.  Three critical, novel holdings are worthy of emphasis:

First, the Court held that the writ of error coram nobis cannot be used to advance claims under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963).  A “Brady” claim is a claim that a defendant’s right to a fair trial was violated because the State withheld exculpatory evidence that it is constitutionally required to provide to defendants.  This oft-overlooked violation can be characterized as pervasive in Shelby County and other areas in Tennessee.  Further, when Brady violations are acknowledged—even in capital cases—the Board of Professional Responsibility of the Tennessee Supreme Court has given District Attorneys little more than a slap on the wrist.  Henceforth, however, Brady claims will no longer be cognizable via the writ of error coram nobis.  Instead, they must be brought via the Tennessee Post-Conviction Procedure Act.

Second, the Court held that “timeliness under the statute of limitations is an ‘essential element’ of a coram nobis claim that must appear on the face of the petition.”  Unless tolled, a writ of error coram nobis must be filed within one year of the date of a defendant’s conviction or it will be forever unavailable as time-barred.  Given, among other things, the overwhelming difficulties associated with reinvestigating one’s case from prison and Tennessee’s structurally deficient indigent defense system, this time limitation is so short that it renders the writ practically useless.  According to the National Registry of Exonerations, criminal defendants who were exonerated in 2017 “spent an average of 10.6 years incarcerated for their convictions.”  Similarly, in 2016, “[a]lmost two-thirds of the DNA exonerations in 2016 were murder cases, and the average time from conviction to exoneration was 21 years.”  Accordingly, absent rare and extraordinary circumstances, the one-year statute of limitations will operate to foreclose virtually all meaningful opportunities for relief under Tennessee’s coram nobis statute.

Third, and most significantly, the Court held that “coram nobis petitions with inadequate allegations are susceptible to summary dismissal on the face of the petition, without discovery or an evidentiary hearing.”  Importantly, the vast majority of coram nobis petitions are filed by pro se inmates who have no right or ability to have an attorney assist them.  As a result, this easily-overlooked bombshell will essentially end coram nobis relief across Tennessee, because vanishingly few pro se litigants will be able to draft a petition that successfully navigates the procedural morass necessary to state a cognizable claim for relief on their own.  Thus, when coram nobis petitions are filed, nearly all of them will now be dismissed summarily: (1) without a response; (2) without a hearing; and (3) without the opportunity to have an attorney file an amended petition to correct any shortcomings in the inmate’s pleadings.  As a consequence, for nearly all practical purposes, the writ of error coram nobis is now dead.

2.  Growing Expansion of “Good Faith” Exception to Unlawful Searches

In State v. Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court addressed a suppression issue in a gruesome case involving two murdered newborns.  The contested search warrant involved a magistrate’s “simple and good-faith clerical error of incorrectly indicating on one of three copies of the warrant that it was issued at 11:35 ‘PM’ while correctly indicating on the other two copies that it was issued at 11:35 ‘AM.’”  Although there is an extremely good reason why law enforcement is required to state the time of issuance on a search warrant—it helps “ensure that the warrant is obtained [legally] before the search is conducted, not [illegally] afterwards”—the error in Lowe genuinely appeared to have been a clerical one committed in good faith.

Following a similar set of circumstances, in 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted the “Exclusionary Rule Reform Act,” which provides that evidence “shall not be suppressed” if the court determines that the violation was the result of a good faith mistake or “technical” violation.  In a holding that would traditionally be important, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously determined that, in enacting the ERRA, the General Assembly encroached upon the exclusive province of the judiciary in violation of the Tennessee Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine.  Accordingly, the Court held that “the ERRA represents an impermissible encroachment by the legislature upon this Court’s authority,” and it invalidated the ERRA as unconstitutional.

Even so, the Court nonetheless did precisely what the ERRA instructed, and it adopted its central legislative demand as a matter of Tennessee common law.  Notably, this is the second time in three years that the Tennessee Supreme Court has “asserted” its authority under the separation of powers doctrine, only to “acquiesc[e] to the standard proposed by the General Assembly” and adopt as a matter of Tennessee common law precisely what the legislature had promulgated as a matter of statute.

In sum: finding that “the magistrate’s good-faith mistake was inconsequential,” the Court held that “the exclusionary rule should not be applied under these circumstances,” and it declined to suppress the evidence gathered as a result.

3.  Wholesale Embrace of the “Good Faith” Exception

Third and finally, in a case relying on its just-released decision in Lowe, the Tennessee Supreme Court took up State v. Daniel, a decision involving whether the “good faith” exception should apply when law enforcement fails to provide a defendant with a copy of a search warrant at all.

One scholar has written about the Tennessee Supreme Court’s breakneck sprint toward a wholesale “good faith” exception in Tennessee.  Somewhat less noticed has been the fact that Tennessee Supreme Court has also changed the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure to accommodate it, bolstering its permanence.  Effective July 1, 2018, Rule 41 was amended to afford trial courts discretion to determine whether to exclude evidence that was gathered pursuant to a search warrant that is noncompliant with Rule 41.  See 2018 Tenn. Ct. Order 0002, No. ADM2017-01892 (Tenn. 2018).  The amendment altered the critical language of subsection (g)—which had stated that a motion to suppress “shall be granted” if a search warrant is defective—to read instead that the motion “may” be granted.  This rule change, however, is merely a matter of formality, having already been adopted informally by judicial fiat.  In 2015, in a cursory section on page 32 of its decision in State v. Corrin Reynolds, the Tennessee Supreme Court expressly held that the notion that the word “shall” in Rule 41 ever actually meant what it said “would be peculiar indeed.”

With this context in mind, the Court easily concluded that the “good faith” exception to unlawful searches applied in Daniel, finding that although the search warrant at issue was not provided to the defendant, the mistake was an honest one and did not result in any prejudice.  As a consequence, while continuing to characterize the good faith exception as a “narrow” one despite decision after decision indicating otherwise, the Court determined that the evidence would not be suppressed.

***

Taken together, the Tennessee Supreme Court continues its steady campaign to restrict the rights of the criminally accused.  As a result, criminal defendants in Tennessee—particularly those who are innocent—may be forced to turn to federal courts for habeas corpus relief under equitable exceptions that excuse defendants’ failure to comply with inadequate state processes instead.

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Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

Nashville, Tennessee—A groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t.  A recent poll of 531 registered voters in Tennessee indicated that 84% of Tennesseans support reforming the law, including 90% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans.  Among other things, the law operates to punish first-time, non-violent drug offenders more severely than defendants who are convicted of violent crimes like Rape and Second Degree Murder.

Calvin Bryant is a beloved former Hillsboro High School football star, a former Tennessee State University student, and a former Tennessean employee.  A decade ago, witnesses described him as a “model citizen” who had “impeccable” character, was “loving toward his family,” “took a great interest in the people who live[d] in his neighborhood,” and was “very generous” with the elderly.  In 2008, however, Mr. Bryant was indicted for selling ecstasy pills to an aggressive government informant who had contacted him repeatedly, reminded Mr. Bryant that “he had helped raise him,” insisted that he needed drugs to earn money to feed his family, and pleaded with Mr. Bryant to help him get some.

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense—Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind—because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023—and after over nine years of incarceration—will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours—especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purposeAs one Tennessee judge has explained, for example:

I simply do not believe that the Tennessee legislature intended the scope of the Act to include drugs brought into the protected school zone by law enforcement’s own design. This concept of luring, which commonly takes the form of an undercover sting operation, is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the Act and defeats the overall purpose of “creat[ing] a drug-free school zone to reduce the occurrence of illegal drug activity in and around school facilities in order to enhance the learning environment.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition also highlights the fact that “Davidson County’s own Grand Jury has observed that the [District Attorney’s] previous application of the school zone enhancement was arbitrary and capricious,” having formerly been applied in a way that turned substantially on a defendant’s poverty.  It explains:

“[G]iven the location-based nature of the sentencing enhancement at issue, Mr. Bryant’s sentence was also enhanced dramatically based on his poverty alone.  If, for example, Mr. Bryant had lived in a wealthy, residentially-zoned suburb like Belle Meade, then he likely would have been eligible for release after serving just two years and five months in prison for the exact same conduct.  Because Mr. Bryant lived in the Edgehill Housing Projects, however, Mr. Bryant must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least fifteen (15) years before he even becomes eligible for parole.”

Further, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that before the new District Attorney reformed his office’s use of the school zone sentencing enhancement in 2014, “Davidson County’s application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 was unmistakably race-based.”  “Although there is abundant evidence that people of all races in Nashville use and sell drugs at roughly equal rates,” his petition explains, fully “87% of defendants in this jurisdiction who received enhanced sentences under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 were people of color.”

Most importantly, however, Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters—including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists—have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

“The fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales more harshly than rape and murder is insane,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing Mr. Bryant.  “Mr. Bryant was a promising young college student and a pillar of his community at the time of his conviction, and he made a single mistake that has already cost him a full decade of his life behind bars.  Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society, and he deserves to be released.  This is the most unfair sentence I have ever seen.”

Read Mr. Bryant’s Verified Petition for Sentencing Relief here.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief

Appendix

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Lawsuit Seeks to End White County’s Ongoing Sterilization Program

An inmate in White County, Tennessee, has filed a lawsuit in White County Chancery Court seeking to put an end to an ongoing sterilization program instituted by White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield.  Under the program, White County inmates who refuse to submit to long-term surgical sterilization are required to serve jail sentences that are 30 days longer than similarly situated inmates who agree to be sterilized.  The lawsuit—filed directly against Judge Benningfield and the White County Sheriff—asks the Chancery Court to declare Judge Benningfield’s sterilization program unconstitutional and prevent the Sheriff from enforcing it.

“This program is outrageous, it is morally indefensible, and it’s illegal,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmate.  “We fully expect the Chancery Court to put an end to this abusive and reprehensible program and ensure that it never returns again.”

“Eugenics is illegal in Tennessee and across the United States,” the lawsuit reads.  “Tennessee law provides absolutely no authority to institute or enforce such a program, and both the Tennessee Constitution and the United States Constitution forbid it.  From mass sterilizations in Nazi Germany to eugenics experimentation in Tuskegee, Alabama, eugenics is anathema to any conception of morality and represents one of the most disturbing chapters in the dark history of human cruelty.  Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program should be—and must be—declared illegal and permanently enjoined as a result.”

Judge Benningfield’s sterilization program gained national attention after White County District Attorney Bryant Dunaway expressed concerns about the program’s rank illegality and immorality to a reporter in July 2017.  Thereafter, Judge Benningfield partially rescinded his standing order in response to national outcry.  Because Judge Benningfield’s supplemental order still provides that inmates who refuse to be sterilized must serve sentences that are 30 days longer than those who agree to surgical sterilization, however, the program is still ongoing.

In addition to asking the Court to declare the program unconstitutional, the lawsuit seeks to “[e]njoin the Defendants from subjecting the Plaintiff to an additional 30 days of incarceration for exercising his constitutional right to reproductive freedom.”  It further asks the Court to award the Plaintiff attorney’s fees and have the fee award “donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Tuskegee History Center.”

Selected media coverage regarding the program appears below:

-Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-White County Inmates Given Reduced Jail Time If They Get Vasectomy

‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

Tennessee judge rescinds inmate sterilization-for-freedom program

Judge to inmates: Get sterilized and I’ll shave off jail time

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Breaking: Foreign Vanderbilt Law School Graduate Wins Right to Take the Tennessee Bar Exam

By Daniel A. Horwitz

Maximiliano Gluzman, the “obviously very, very qualified” Vanderbilt Law School graduate who was denied the opportunity even to take the Tennessee Bar Exam, has officially won his case before the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Based on the Court’s order approving his petition, Mr. Gluzman will be able to take the upcoming bar exam scheduled for February 2018.

“We conclude that the requirements of section 7.01 should not be applied to preclude Mr. Gluzman from taking the Tennessee bar examination,” the Court held in a per curiam order.  “As a result, the BLE may not hereafter rely upon section 7.01 of Rule 7 as a basis to deny Mr. Gluzman permission to take the Tennessee bar examination.”  The Court’s order is available here.

“We are ecstatic that the Tennessee Supreme Court has vindicated Mr. Gluzman’s claim that he was wrongfully denied the opportunity to take the Tennessee Bar Exam,” said Daniel Horwitz, Mr. Gluzman’s attorney.  “Mr. Gluzman is as qualified to practice law as any attorney in Tennessee, and he will be a tremendous asset to the legal profession.  Justice was served today.”

The briefing in Gluzman v. BLE featured the participation of three leading national conservative groups, which argued that the Board’s crippling regulations violated Mr. Gluzman’s fundamental right to earn a living free from irrational government overreach.  Tennessee’s two flagship law schools—Vanderbilt Law School and the University of Tennessee College of Law—also filed petitions in the case after seeing students disenroll from their law programs once the Board began implementing its protectionist regulations.  All parties’ briefs from the case are available below.

Petitioner Maximilano Gluzman’s Principal Brief

Brief of Respondent the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners

Petitioner Maximiliano Gluzman’s Reply Brief

Brief of Amici Curiae The Beacon Center, Cato Institute, and Goldwater Institute

Petition of Vanderbilt Law School and University of Tennessee College of Law

Selected news coverage about the ruling is available at the following links:

-Nashville Post: Supreme Court rules Argentine can take Tennessee Bar

-Bloomberg: Argentine LL.M. With 3.9 GPA Wins Bid to Take Tenn. Bar Exam

-Nashville Post: Argentine lawyer challenging Tennessee Board of Law Examiners

-Nashville Post: National conservative groups join local bar fight

-Above the Law: State Bars Foreign Student From Bar Exam — Next Stop, State Supreme Court

-ABA Journal: Vanderbilt law prof who taught Argentine LLM student backs his bid to take the bar exam

-The Tennessean: How Tennessee discriminated against a talented Vanderbilt law grad

-Cato At Liberty Blog: Even Lawyers Have the Right to Earn an Honest Living

-Beacon Center Blog: Banned From the Bar Exam

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All Briefs Are Now Filed In the Case of the “Obviously Very, Very Qualified” Vanderbilt Law Student Prevented from Taking Bar Exam

By Daniel Horwitz:

Briefing is officially complete in Gluzman v. Tennessee Board of Law Examiners—the case of the “obviously very, very qualified” Vanderbilt Law School student who graduated Vanderbilt with an eye-popping 3.919 GPA but was still denied even the opportunity to take the Tennessee bar exam because he earned his undergraduate degree and his first law degree in his birth country of Argentina.  The case is now awaiting a ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court.

While his case has been pending, Mr. Gluzman took and passed the New York bar exam on his first attempt.  However, rather than uprooting his family unnecessarily, he still hopes to be able to take the bar exam in Tennessee and practice law near his wife’s business in Memphis.

The briefing in Gluzman v. BLE features the involvement of three leading national conservative groups, which have argued that the Board’s crippling regulations violate Mr. Gluzman’s fundamental right to earn a living free from irrational government overreach.  Tennessee’s two flagship law schools—Vanderbilt Law School and the University of Tennessee College of Law—also filed petitions in the case after seeing students disenroll from their law programs once the Board began implementing its new protectionist regulations.  All parties’ briefs in the case are available below.

Petitioner Maximilano Gluzman’s Principal Brief

Brief of Respondent the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners

Petitioner Maximiliano Gluzman’s Reply Brief

Brief of Amici Curiae The Beacon Center, Cato Institute, and Goldwater Institute

Petition of Vanderbilt Law School and University of Tennessee College of Law

Mr. Gluzman’s battle against the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners has attracted national media attention due in part to the Board’s refusal to permit Mr. Gluzman and other lawyers “from the vast majority of countries around the world” from ever being able to take the Tennessee bar exam regardless of their qualifications.  In Mr. Gluzman’s case, the Board’s policy is also particularly difficult to justify, because the Board itself has formally acknowledged that Mr. Gluzman is “obviously a very, very qualified person.”  Selected news coverage about the case is available below.

-Nashville Post: Argentine lawyer challenging Tennessee Board of Law Examiners

-Nashville Post: National conservative groups join local bar fight

-Above the Law: State Bars Foreign Student From Bar Exam — Next Stop, State Supreme Court

-ABA Journal: Vanderbilt law prof who taught Argentine LLM student backs his bid to take the bar exam

-The Tennessean: How Tennessee discriminated against a talented Vanderbilt law grad

-Cato At Liberty Blog: Even Lawyers Have the Right to Earn an Honest Living

-Beacon Center Blog: Banned From the Bar Exam

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Tennessee Supreme Court Holds that Divorce Contracts Must be Enforced as Written

By Daniel Horwitz:

In a common-sense opinion that clarified a muddled conflict among lower courts, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that fee-shifting provisions in divorce agreements must be enforced as written.  Offering a forceful defense of the right to contract, Chief Justice Bivins’ unanimous opinion in Eberach v. Eberach instructs all lower courts that they do not have any discretion to deny attorney’s fees to a prevailing party if a contract agreed to by both parties makes such an award mandatory.

Eberach involved litigation between a former husband and wife following their divorce.  In 2011, the couple divorced and entered into a “marital dissolution agreement,” or “MDA.”  In lay terms, an MDA is a binding contract that sets out the terms of a divorce.  Among other things, the parties’ MDA provided that:

“In the event it becomes reasonably necessary for either party to institute legal proceedings to procure the enforcement of any provision of this Agreement, the prevailing party shall also be entitled to a judgment for reasonable expenses, including attorney’s fees, incurred in prosecuting the action.”

Three years later, the ex-couple found themselves embroiled in litigation over the wife’s plan to relocate to Ohio with their three children.  Ultimately, the trial court granted the wife permission to move to Ohio and awarded her $20,000.00 in attorney’s fees.  Thereafter, the trial court’s decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, which upheld both the relocation and the trial court’s fee award.  However, the Court of Appeals declined to award the wife additional compensation for the attorney’s fees that she had incurred on appeal.

Upon review, the Tennessee Supreme Court observed that various tribunals of the Court of Appeals had “been inconsistent in their analysis of claims for attorney’s fees in cases in which the claim is based on a contractual provision in a MDA.”  One line of cases held that appellate courts have discretion to deny attorney’s fees to a prevailing party “even in the face of a controlling contractual fee provision requiring such an award.”[1]  Another line of authority held that “when a MDA fee provision mandates an award of attorney’s fees to the prevailing party, the Court of Appeals does not have discretion to deny an award of appellate attorney’s fees.”[2]  Additionally, a third line of cases “observed that an award of appellate attorney fees in Tennessee is within the court’s sound discretion,” but then went on “to award attorney’s fees on appeal solely on the basis of the parties’ MDA fee provisions without further discussion.”[3]

Clarifying this conflicting precedent, the Tennessee Supreme Court instructed with unmistakable clarity that “parties are contractually entitled to recover their reasonable attorney’s fees when they have an agreement that provides the prevailing party in a [lawsuit] is entitled to such fees.”   “In such cases,” the Court explained, trial courts “do[] not have the discretion to set aside the parties’ agreement and supplant it with its own judgment.”  The Court further instructed that “[t]he same is and must be true of our appellate courts.”  Thus, “[a]bsent fraud, mistake, or some other defect, our courts are required to interpret contracts as written.”

As a general matter, litigants in the United States must pay their own attorney’s fees regardless of whether they win or lose.  Under this so-called “American Rule”—to which Tennessee adheres—“a party in a civil action may recover attorney’s fees only if: (1) a contractual or statutory provision creates a right to recover attorney’s fees; or (2) some other recognized exception to the American Rule applies, allowing for recovery of such fees in a particular case.”[4]  “Otherwise,” as the Eberach court observed, “litigants are responsible for their own attorney’s fees.”  Of note, the general presumption that parties must bear their own legal fees places the United States at odds with the legal regimes of many European nations, which generally adhere to a “loser pays” framework.

The most common exception to the American rule is a private agreement between parties which provides that in the event of litigation, the loser must pay the winner’s attorney’s fees.  Significantly, in Eberach, the husband and wife had executed such an agreement.  Thus, the only question presented in Eberach was whether the Court of Appeals was required to enforce it.

Emphatically answering this question in the affirmative, the Court’s opinion in Eberach furthers Tennessee’s longstanding commitment to protecting the right to contract.  In Tennessee, the right to contract has constitutional origins, and it is enforceable as a fundamental right.[5]  Tennessee statutory law also provides that: “All contracts, . . . in writing and signed by the party to be bound, . . .  shall be enforced as written.”[6]  In keeping with this tradition, the Eberach court explained that “one of the bedrocks of Tennessee law is that our courts are without power to make another and different contract from the one executed by the parties themselves.”  As such, the Court mandated that the terms of the husband’s and wife’s MDA be enforced.

Having resolved that the wife was entitled to attorney’s fees for her successful litigation in the Court of Appeals, the Court then remanded the case to the trial court to “determine the appropriate amount of Wife’s reasonable attorney’s fees on the appeal.”  Additionally, applying its just-announced holding to itself, the Tennessee Supreme Court also explained that the attorney’s fee award must cover the costs of the wife’s appeal “to this Court” as well.  Thus, going forward, litigants in Tennessee—and divorcees in particular—can have renewed faith that the terms of their contracts will, in fact, be enforced as written.

Read the Court’s unanimous opinion in Eberach v. Eberach here.

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[1] See Grisham v. Grisham, No. W2010- 00618-COA-R3-CV, 2011 WL 607377, at *11 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 22, 2011) (holding that the trial court erred in failing to award wife her reasonable trial court attorney’s fees pursuant to MDA fee provision, but declining to award appellate attorney’s fees pursuant to the Court of Appeals’ discretion); Brown v. Brown, No. W2005-00811-COA-R3-CV, 2006 WL 784788, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 29, 2006) (affirming the trial court’s award of trial court fees under the parties’ MDA, but equitably denying wife’s request for appellate fees pursuant to the Court of Appeals’ discretion); Elliott v. Elliott, 149 S.W.3d 77, 88 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2004) (affirming the trial court’s award of fees to wife pursuant to parties’ MDA fee provision, but denying wife’s request for appellate attorney’s fees); Dulin v. Dulin, No. W2001-02969-COA-R3-CV, 2003 WL 22071454, at *8, *10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 3, 2003) (affirming trial court’s award of attorney’s fees pursuant to MDA, but equitably declining to award either party attorney’s fees incurred on appeal).

[2] See, e.g., Beem v. Beem, No. W2009-00800-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 1687782, at *9-10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 28, 2010) (affirming trial court’s award of fees pursuant to MDA and holding that wife was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Treadway v. Treadway, No. M2014-00898-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1396652, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 24, 2015) (awarding appellate attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Brinton v. Brinton, No. M2009-02215-COA-R3-CV, 2010 WL 2025473, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. May 19, 2010) (same); Corbin v. Corbin, No. W2008-00437-COAR3-CV, 2009 WL 454134, at *7 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 24, 2009) (same); Waugh v. Waugh, No. M2006-021540COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 2200278, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 30, 2007) (same); Hogan, 1999 WL 1097983, at *4-5 (reversing trial court’s denial of attorney’s fees, and awarding attorney’s fees to Mother for trial court and appellate level proceedings pursuant to the parties’ MDA).

[3] Wilkinson v. Wilkinson, No. W2012-00509-COA-R3-CV, 2013 WL 614708, at *10 (Tenn. Ct. App. Feb. 19, 2013); (citing Archer, 907 S.W.2d at 419) (emphasis supplied)). See also Hanna v. Hanna, No. W2014-02051- COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 1951932, at *4 (Tenn. Ct. App. Apr. 30, 2015) (stating its discretion then awarding fees on appeal based on the parties’ MDA requiring that the “court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees to the party seeking to enforce [the MDA]”) (alterations in original); Williams v. Williams, No. M2013-01910-COA-R3-CV, 2015 WL 412985, at *14 (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 30, 2015) (affirming the trial court’s award of fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA, stating its discretion and determining that wife was entitled to attorney’s fees on appeal pursuant to the parties’ MDA); Dodd v. Dodd, No. M2011-02147-COA-R3-CV, 2012 WL 3193339, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 6, 2012) (holding that Mother was entitled to recover her trial court attorney’s fees pursuant to the parties’ MDA, but using its discretion and concluding that Mother was justified in recovering attorney’s fees).

[4] Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, Inc. v. Epperson, 284 S.W.3d 303, 308 (Tenn. 2009) (citing Fezell, 158 S.W.3d at 359; John Kohl & Co. P.C. v. Dearborn & Ewing, 977 S.W.2d 528, 534 (Tenn. 1998)).

[5] See Tenn. Const. art. XI, § 2; Tenn. Const. art. I, § 20.  See also ARC LifeMed, Inc. v. AMC-Tennessee, Inc., 183 S.W.3d 1, 26 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005) (“equity respects and upholds the fundamental right of the individual to complete freedom to contract”) (quotation omitted).

[6] Tenn. Code Ann. § 47-50-112(a).

Nashville Scene: “The Tennessee Supreme Court Keeps Reversing Itself, and Criminal Defense Attorneys Are Worried”

Via Stephen Elliot, The Nashville Scene: (link)

In 2012, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that a defendant who pleads guilty to a crime can appeal the judgment if exculpatory evidence is discovered later.

Four years later, the same court changed its mind.

What occurred in the intervening four years to necessitate such a pivot by the state’s highest court? Nothing, according to Justice Sharon G. Lee.

. . . .

“Since 2014, the Tennessee Supreme Court has aggressively sought to federalize Tennessee law by striking down state-specific protections that prior iterations of the court had developed under Tennessee’s state constitution and civil rules,” says Daniel Horwitz, a Nashville attorney and the editor of ScotBlog, a website devoted to the state Supreme Court. “A few significant state-level protections still remain. However, given that prior precedent — no matter how recent or firmly established — has had virtually no influence on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decisions to overturn its previous rulings, it stands to reason that these protections are vulnerable to being abandoned as well.”

Read more: http://www.nashvillescene.com/news/features/article/20857900/the-tennessee-supreme-court-keeps-reversing-itself-and-criminal-defense-attorneys-are-worried

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New in the February 2017 Tennessee Bar Journal: Safeguarding Crime Victims’ Private Records Following The Tennessean v. Metro

By Daniel Horwitz:

In March 2016, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled 4–1 that law enforcement’s investigative files are categorically exempt from public disclosure under the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) throughout the pendency of a criminal case. The underlying lawsuit pitted a vast media coalition spearheaded by The Tennessean against both law enforcement officials and a rape victim who intervened to protect her privacy interests under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.” Ultimately, the court’s majority opinion represented a resounding victory for law enforcement and a significant setback for Tennessee’s news media, which lost on every substantive claim presented. At present, however, how the court’s ruling will affect crime victims’ ability to protect their private records from public disclosure after criminal proceedings have concluded is uncertain.

Continue reading New in the February 2017 Tennessee Bar Journal: Safeguarding Crime Victims’ Private Records Following The Tennessean v. Metro

The Tennessee Supreme Court Has Agreed to Hear a Laughably Egregious Case of Economic Protectionism

The Tennessee Supreme Court has agreed to hear a laughably egregious case of economic protectionism in its upcoming term.  The case pits Vanderbilt Law School alumnus Maximiliano Gluzman – a preeminently qualified lawyer who graduated Vanderbilt’s LL.M. program with an almost impossible 3.919 GPA – against the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners, which has refused to allow Mr. Gluzman to take the Tennessee bar exam solely because he’s foreign.

Given the extraordinary facts of Mr. Gluzman’s case, the Board will struggle to mount a straight-faced claim that its decision to deny Mr. Gluzman the opportunity to take the Tennessee bar exam is based on anything other than its interest in protecting Tennessee’s native-born attorneys from competition—a result that benefits lawyers but harms consumers by artificially raising prices.  As a consequence, the case has the potential to extend Tennessee’s already-robust precedent on economic liberty to an industry that it has never reached before: legal services.

In 2002, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – which has jurisdiction over Tennessee – established ground-breaking federal precedent by holding that “protecting a discrete interest group from economic competition is not a legitimate governmental purpose” and violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]  Significantly, though, the Tennessee Supreme Court boasts an even prouder history of protecting economic liberty under the comparable provisions of Tennessee’s state Constitution.  For example, in the 1956 case Consumers Gasoline Stations v. City of Pulaski, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that: “Although [a] city may have the right to regulate [a] business, it does not have the right to exclude certain persons from engaging in the business while allowing others to do so.”[2]  Additionally, more than half a century before that, the Tennessee Supreme Court held in Harbison v. Knoxville Iron Co. that:

“The ‘liberty’ contemplated in [the Tennessee Constitution] means not only the right of freedom from servitude, imprisonment, or physical restraint, but also the right to use one’s faculties in all lawful ways, to live and work where he chooses, to pursue any lawful calling, vocation, trade, or profession, to make all proper contracts in relation thereto, and to enjoy the legitimate fruits thereof.[3]

Of note, the Tennessee General Assembly has since expanded these precedents even further as a legislative matter by enacting the “Right to Earn a Living Act” in 2016,[4] which recognized that: “it is in the public interest to ensure the right of all individuals to pursue legitimate entrepreneurial and professional opportunities to the limits of their talent and ambition” without unnecessary governmental interference.

Ostensibly, bar admission rules are intended to protect the public from unqualified attorneys.  Historically, however, they’ve often been wielded to keep disfavored minorities—like Jews and women—from becoming lawyers instead.[5]  Barriers imposed between states themselves have also been used more often than not to “insulat[e] [in-state] practitioners from out-of-state competition,”[6] rather than being adopted for the purpose of promoting any actual public interest.  Such is the case with respect to Mr. Gluzman as well—a fact that the Tennessee Supreme Court is highly unlikely to overlook.

In Mr. Gluzman’s case, there can be no serious claim that he would pose even the slightest threat to the public if he were permitted to take the Tennessee bar exam.  In fact, during Mr. Gluzman’s hearing before the Board of Law Examiners, the Board itself conceded that Mr. Gluzman was “obviously a very, very qualified person.”  His extraordinary academic credentials also support this conclusion in full.  For example, while competing against Vanderbilt’s American JD students (in his second language, no less), Mr. Gluzman was able to graduate with an eye-popping 3.919 GPA—good enough to put him at the top of Vanderbilt’s Dean’s List each semester and quite possibly making him the most academically-qualified foreign applicant ever to apply to take the bar exam in Tennessee.  Two of Mr. Gluzman’s Vanderbilt Law School professors also provided expert testimony in support of his application to take the bar exam, with one observing that Mr. Gluzman was “one of the very best students I ever had the privilege of teaching in 20 years,” and the other testifying that he was “clearly top of the class.”  Mr. Gluzman’s application to take the Tennessee bar exam also comes after more than a decade of professional success as a corporate lawyer in Argentina.

Despite this sterling record of achievement, however, the Board of Law Examiners denied Mr. Gluzman not only the opportunity to become a lawyer in Tennessee—it told him that he may never even take the Tennessee bar exam.  The purported basis for the Board’s denial was that Mr. Gluzman’s undergraduate and legal education were not “substantially equivalent” to an American education: a conclusion that itself conflicts with an expert foreign credential evaluation report filed in his case that unequivocally concluded otherwise.  According to the Board, though, a foreign applicant like Mr. Gluzman must have earned “a degree that is equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree or higher followed by a degree that is equivalent to a Juris Doctorate degree,” which he did not.

Conveniently, because the vast majority of countries around the world combine undergraduate and legal educations into just a single degree over the course of a five- or six-year period, one expert witness testified that only “[foreign] students from nine Canadian provinces, a few Australian students, and a few Japanese students” may ever hope to win permission take the Tennessee bar exam under the Board’s current standard.  Attorneys from anywhere else in the world, however, are forever prohibited from becoming lawyers in Tennessee unless they opt to re-do their entire undergraduate and legal education in the United States.  Obviously, no foreign applicant is willing to forfeit the time (seven years) and money (hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum, factoring in opportunity costs) necessary to satisfy that requirement.  Instead, the only rational decision is to move to states like Texas, which makes an effort to accommodate foreign attorneys rather than placing insurmountable barriers in front of them for the purpose of curbing competition.

Exacerbating this groundless discrimination, LL.M. Degrees – which many states permit to “cure” any claim of insufficient foreign credentials – from law schools like Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee are now disregarded as useless by the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners if an attorney does not hail from one of the three aforementioned countries with law schools that match American JD programs.  Thus, if permitted to stand, the Board’s decision would significantly undermine the integrity of the LL.M. programs offered by Tennessee’s two flagship law schools.  Fearing lasting and devastating consequences from the Board’s grievous error, the Board’s decision immediately prompted Vanderbilt University and UT to file a joint petition in support of Mr. Gluzman highlighting the seriousness of the problem that the Board had created.  Even then, however, the Board opted to ignore it.

In addition to disregarding Mr. Gluzman’s surpassing personal qualifications, the reality that the Board of Law Examiners is not actually focused on protecting the public from unqualified lawyers is revealed by the fact that it has taken no apparent interest in the declining bar passage rates posted by Nashville School of Law in recent years.  The last time the bar exam was administered in Tennessee, for example, fully 72% of Nashville School of Law graduates failed it—a fact that did not visibly cause the Board of Law Examiners even the slightest concern.  Now, however, an indisputably qualified Vanderbilt Law School graduate wants to sit for the bar exam, but because he’s foreign, the Board won’t even let him take it?  Plainly, the Board’s motives have little and less to do with protecting the public from unqualified lawyers, and a great deal more to do with protecting American attorneys from foreign competition.  Whether the Board’s decision – and all of its attendant consequences – will be permitted to stand, however, only time will tell.

Gluzman v. Tennessee Board of Law Examiners is expected to be heard in the Spring or Summer of 2017.  Read Mr. Gluzman’s brief before the Tennessee Board of Law Examiners here.

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[1] Craigmiles v. Giles, 312 F.3d 220, 224 (6th Cir. 2002).

[2] 292 S.W.2d 735, 737 (Tenn. 1956).

[3] 53 S.W. 955, 957 (Tenn. 1899).

[4] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 4-5-501, et seq. (2016).

[5] See Deborah Rhode, Moral Character As A Professional Credential, 94 Yale L.J. 491, 497-502 (1985) (noting that State bars historically have excluded women, Jews, those of Eastern European decent, religious fanatics, Communists, and adulterers, among others, because these allegedly socially unacceptable or radical political behaviors were said to have demonstrated a propensity to violate professional norms).

[6] Supreme Court of New Hampshire v. Piper, 470 U.S. 274, 278 (1985).

Slate: An Attorney and a DA Are Seeking Justice for Tennesseans Convicted of “Homosexual Acts”

By Mark Joseph Stern, for Slate:

Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz was helping a man expunge his criminal record when he discovered something unexpected: a conviction for violating Tennessee’s Homosexual Practices Act—from 1995.

“Subject was engaged in sexual intercourse with another male subject,” the misdemeanor citation reads. The charge could have landed the defendant—whom I’ll call John Doe—in jail. Instead, Doe took a plea deal and avoided jail time by admitting that he had, indeed, had sex with a man, a practice forbidden by the law. Horwitz told me he was “aghast” to see the charge.

Continue reading Slate: An Attorney and a DA Are Seeking Justice for Tennesseans Convicted of “Homosexual Acts”