Tennessee Supreme Court To Livestream Video Conference Oral Arguments June 3

May 28, 2021

The Tennessee Supreme Court has two cases set for its June 3, 2021 docket. These cases will be heard using livestream video conferencing and will be livestreamed to the TNCourt's YouTube page: https://www.youtube.com/user/TNCourts/featured. The first case will begin at 9 a.m. and the second case will begin at 10:30 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. Urshawn E. Miller– Defendant Urshawn Miller was convicted in 2018 by a Madison County jury of first-degree murder, felony murder, attempted especially aggravated robbery, attempted second-degree murder, aggravated assault, employing a firearm in the commission of a dangerous felony, resisting arrest, and evading arrest. Mr. Miller’s convictions for first-degree murder and felony murder were merged, and a jury sentenced him to death for that conviction. Following a separate sentencing hearing, the trial court imposed a total effective sentence of thirty years for the other non-capital offenses to be served concurrent to the death sentence. On appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Mr. Miller did not challenge his convictions for evading or resisting arrest but raised numerous issues including sufficiency of the evidence, error during jury selection, and improper use of his prior conviction for aggravated robbery during the penalty phase of trial. Mr. Miller also challenged the constitutionality of the death penalty, as well as its proportionality in this case, and argued that any aggravating factors did not outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Mr. Miller’s convictions and sentence. The court concluded the evidence at trial was sufficient to support his convictions, any error that may have occurred during jury selection was harmless, and the use of his prior conviction during the penalty phase was not an abuse of discretion. Additionally, after conducting its statutorily mandated review of Mr. Miller’s death sentence, the court concluded Mr. Miller’s death sentence was not arbitrary, was supported by the jury’s finding of an aggravating factor that outweighed any mitigating factors, and was proportional compared to the death penalty imposed in similar cases. The court declined to address Mr. Miller’s constitutional challenge to the death penalty, as it was controlled by prior Tennessee precedent. Ultimately, the court remanded the case to the trial court to correct two clerical errors. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, Mr. Miller has renewed his arguments from below. Along with consideration of those issues, the Court will conduct the mandatory review of Mr. Miller’s death sentence pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-206.