Tennessee Judicial Conference remains closed to media and public

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Photo by John Partipilo; from Tennessee Lookout

This article was written by Anita Wadhwani of Tennessee Lookout

An annual conference of Tennessee court officials taking place this week will remain closed to the media and the public after a federal judge denied an emergency petition by a news organization seeking access.

The annual gathering of the Tennessee Judicial Conference — a group that includes active and retired state court judges, clerks and staff attorneys — began Wednesday.

Dan McCaleb, executive director of the online, nonprofit news organization The Center Square filed suit Monday, asserting that journalists have a First Amendment right to attend the event, which is paid for with taxpayer dollars. Legal filings note that the state budget includes a line item expense of $40,000 for the cost of the conference.

Earlier this year, the newly promoted director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), approved a policy to close the conference to the public on her first day on the job, according to court filings.

The closure policy approved in February by Michelle Long, the director, closes all AOC-hosted conferences to the public. The stated purpose of the policy is “to ensure the safety and security” of all attendees and speakers. In their filings, attorneys with the office of the Tennessee Attorney General, representing Long, noted that the policy was based, in part, on “acts of violence directed toward judges at the federal, state, and local levels.”

The policy also requires all attendees and conference speakers to keep secret the date, physical location, conference materials and virtual access links to the conference.

“Allowing public access would undermine the substantial government interest in the continuing legal education and training of state trial court and appellate judges and it would be a hindrance to the AOC’s ability to provide a safe space for judicial education and would cause a chilling effect on the necessary discussions and open dialogue that occur among the judges during educational sessions held during the conferences” the states response to the lawsuit said.

An order issued Wednesday by Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw, Jr. denied McCaleb’s request for a temporary restraining order preventing the public closure of the conference.

The order noted that the Court based its decision in part on a sealed document it directed attorneys for AOC to file outlining the conference agenda. Attorneys for AOC had argued in filings the gathering was purely educational, and designed for legal professionals to earn continuing legal education credits that are required as part of their licenses.

The lawsuit remains ongoing and seeks a broader ruling on the media’s right to access future AOC gatherings.

Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: info@tennesseelookout.com. Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.

Published on June 20, 2022.