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Memphis City Council pushes back against bills moving through Tenn. Legislature

Memphis City Council members voiced their opposition to a pair of bills pending in the Republican-dominated state legislature – including the elimination of two Shelby County judicial courts – during the Tuesday, April 9 meeting.

Another criticizes a bill that would create a school voucher system in Tennessee.

Both passed using same-night minutes. 

“We already have a judicial system that needs support,”  said chairman JB Smiley. “Instead of giving us support, what’s currently transpiring is the general assembly is proposing to remove seats from the Tennessee circuit court in Shelby County and the criminal court in Shelby County.” 

State bill 2517/HB 2002 would the eliminate Circuit Court Division seat currently occupied by Judge Mary Wagner. It would also terminate to former Shelby County Criminal judge Melissa Boyd’s District-9 Criminal Court seat.

Boyd is currently undergoing treatment at a state-run center in Jackson for drug and alcohol abuse. The 59-year-old pleaded guilty to charges of harassment and coercing a witness last week. She failed tests for cocaine and alcohol while out on bond awaiting trial. She resigned before proceedings began.

A replacement hasn’t been named.

The seats would move to the state’s fourth and nineteenth judicial districts. Combined, they cover four counties in East Tennessee, one in Middle Tennessee and another in West Tennessee. The bill would create one circuit court and one trial court for the 23rd and 4th Districts. 

Supporters have cited a 2019 report from the state comptroller’s office that deemed the two court seats “over-judged” since 2002. State senators moved the item from the judiciary committee on a 5-3 vote.

The resolution notes the bill’s concerns over “safety risks” and “the swift administration of justice” in Shelby County.

The Memphis Bar Association opposes the move. 

State Senator Brent Taylor, District 31, has also resisted the proposal. The Democrat from Memphis  proposed an amendment to keep the District 9 criminal court in Shelby County. It failed.

If the bill passes, he supports the creation of an identifiable backlog to distribute circuit court cases among concurrent jurisdictions.

I think everyone should be added as a co-sponsor. I don’t think there’s any objection this particular thing,” said Smiley. “Hopefully, we can get this to our lobbyist, so they can do their job.”

Voting in favor were Ford Canale, Yoland Cooper-Sutton, Michalyn Easter-Thomas, EdmundFord, Sr., Jerri Green, Rhonda Logan, Philip Spinosa, Jana Swearengen-Washington, Pearl Eva Walker, Jeff Warren, Janika White and Smiley.

HB 1183/SB 0503, meanwhile, would establish a voucher system throughout the state of Tennessee. The legislation would allow money to flow to private schools, including faith-based institutions. Currently, only learning centers within the state’s various public school systems receive taxpayer funding.

Arkansas and Arizona recently passed respective voucher systems.

Among others, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association – the area teachers union – opposes proposed law.

The resolution is sponsored by Easter-Thomas, Green, Walker, Cooper-Sutton, Swearengen-Washington, Logan, Smiley, Ford and Warren.

Voting in favor of the resolution were White, Cooper-Sutton, Easter-Thomas, Ford, Green, Logan, Swearengen-Washington, Walker and Warren.

Canale abstained, while Philip Spinosa did not vote. Chase Carlisle wasn’t present for either vote.

You can watch the full meeting above. Committee meetings are posted here below:


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