Tennessee Supreme Court To Hear Rearguments In Two Cases For February Docket In Nashville

February 17, 2022

The Tennessee Supreme Court has two cases set for its February 24, 2022 docket. Both cases were argued before the Court in 2021 prior to the vacancy created by the passing of Justice Cornelia A. Clark on September 24, 2021. The Court has elected to rehear arguments in these cases after appointing a special justice to participate in each. The first case will begin at 9:00 a.m. The details of the cases are as follows.

  • Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al. v. Tennessee Department of Education, et al.– This interlocutory appeal involves a challenge to the Tennessee Education Savings Account Pilot (the “ESA Act” or “Act”), which was enacted by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2019. The ESA Act created a pilot program initially to be implemented in the 2020-2021 school year in which a limited number of eligible students in Davidson and Shelby counties could apply to use their per pupil education funding to attend a private school, meaning the student’s per pupil funding would not be given to the local education agency or public school. The ESA Act called for a gradual increase in the number of participating students over five years and provided for the State to reimburse local education agencies for the first three years for pupil funding allocated to participating students for use at private schools. Before the ESA Act became effective, the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, the Shelby County Government, and the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education (the “Board”) (collectively the “plaintiffs”), sued Governor Bill Lee, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, and the Tennessee Department of Education (collectively the “State”), arguing that the Act violated multiple provisions of the Tennessee Constitution. The trial court permitted several parties to join as intervenor defendants in the case, including parents of students in Davidson and Shelby counties and two private schools who desired to participate in the pilot program and/or uphold the constitutionality of the Act. Upon motions from the State and intervening defendants, the trial court determined that the Board lacked standing to bring suit and dismissed the Board as a party. However, the trial court determined that Davidson and Shelby counties had standing to challenge the Act because of their duty to provide public education with the local school systems to students in that county. The county plaintiffs moved for summary judgment on the basis that the Act violated the Home Rule Amendment to the Tennessee Constitution, which requires the local legislative body or electorate to approve a law that is local in form or effect, applicable to a particular county, and relating to the county’s governmental capacity. The trial court granted the motion and reasoned that the ESA Act, by its own terms, will only ever apply to Davidson and Shelby counties in their governmental capacity operating their respective school systems. Therefore, the Act required local approval regardless of whether the Act applied to one or more counties. The trial court enjoined the State from implementing the ESA Act and granted the parties the right to seek an interlocutory appeal. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion for a stay pending appeal. The State and some intervening defendants sought permission to file an interlocutory appeal in the Court of Appeals, which the court granted, challenging the trial court’s conclusions as to the counties’ standing and the Home Rule Amendment. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision that the counties had standing to challenge the Act and that the Act violated the Home Rule Amendment of the Tennessee Constitution. The court reasoned that the fiscal effect of the Act on the counties’ budgets was an injury sufficient to confer standing on the counties. Additionally, the court held that the Act violated the Home Rule Amendment because it was local in effect, applied only to Davidson and Shelby counties, and applied to those counties in their governmental capacity of operating the local school systems. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the State renews its argument that the plaintiffs do not have standing. Additionally, it argues that the Act is not subject to the Home Rule Amendment because it could potentially apply throughout the State and not just to Davidson and Shelby counties, that it applies to local education agencies not the counties themselves, and that it does not affect any county in its governmental capacity. The intervening defendants argue that the fiscal effects of the Act are not enough to confer standing on the plaintiffs or bring the Act within the Home Rule Amendment and that the plaintiffs’ county charters prohibit the counties from exercising governmental power over education. In response, the plaintiffs argue that they have standing because the Act inflicts specific injury to their finances, operations, and on the school districts within the county. Additionally, the plaintiffs argue that the Home Rule Amendment applies because the language of the Act is such that it will only apply to Davidson and Shelby counties and that education is a governmental function. More than ten parties have submitted amicus curiae briefs in this matter including the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, the Tennessee NAACP, and The Alliance for School Choice.
  • State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker– Tyshon Booker was charged with two counts of first-degree felony murder and two counts of especially aggravated robbery following the 2015 shooting death of a Knoxville man. Mr. Booker was sixteen years old at the time of the shooting but was tried as an adult. Mr. Booker was convicted of the charges and received a life sentence for his first-degree murder conviction. Tennessee law requires a defendant sentenced to life imprisonment to serve fifty-one years in prison before becoming eligible for release. Mr. Booker appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and argued, among other issues, that automatically sentencing him to life imprisonment as a juvenile and requiring him to serve fifty-one years in confinement before becoming eligible for release amounted to excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment that violated the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Booker’s convictions and his life sentence. As for his constitutional challenge to the life sentence, the intermediate appellate court concluded that it was bound by Tennessee precedent holding that a mandatory, fifty-one-year life sentence for a juvenile does not violate the federal and state constitutions. The Tennessee Supreme Court accepted Mr. Booker’s application for permission to appeal and limited the issues to: (1) whether the sentence of life imprisonment, as applied to Mr. Booker as a juvenile, violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution or article 1, section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution; and (2) what sentencing options may be available under Tennessee law if the Court determines that the sentence of life imprisonment is improper. Over fifty amici curiae have filed briefs in this matter including the ACLU Foundation of Tennessee, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, and Cyntoia Brown Long.           

Justice Sarah K. Campbell has recused herself from the above-mentioned cases by orders filed on February 11, 2022. Special Justice Thomas R. Frierson, II, has been appointed to participate in Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, et al. v. Tennessee Department of Education, et al., and Special Justice William C. Koch, Jr., has been appointed to participate in State of Tennessee v. Tyshon Booker.

Oral arguments will be held in-person at the Nashville Supreme Court Building and will be livestreamed to the TN Courts YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/TNCourts/featured Media planning to attend should review Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 30 and file a request with Barbara Peck.