The executive editor of a Chicago-based news publication filed a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts on June 13, 2022, over access to a meeting of the Tennessee Judicial Conference.
According to the Tennessean, Dan McCaleb, executive editor of The Center Square, learned on June 6 of a new policy put forth by Michelle Long, the Director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, preventing the public and members of the media from attending the annual meetings.
The annual conference comprises the state’s active and retired judges who meet to consider laws, draft legislation and make recommendations to the state’s general assembly. Court documents obtained by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker shows that Long, named in the lawsuit in her official capacity, approved the policy on Feb. 1, to “ensure the safety and security of conference attendees, staff, and invited speakers during AOC conferences.”
In the lawsuit, McCaleb argues that the policy violates his First Amendment right to assign reporters to cover “future Tennessee Judicial Conference meetings either virtually or in person,” and “limits necessary transparency around the state court rulemaking process.” McCaleb added that the yearly meetings “played a significant and positive role in the rulemaking process regarding federal court policy.”
During an emergency hearing on June 15, two days after McCaleb filed the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw declined to order this year’s Tennessee Judicial Conference to be opened to the public and media. Instead, according to the Tennessean, Crenshaw sided with the state’s Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter, who testified during the hearing that the conference meetings would be “entirely educational” for the attendees. While the conference will not be open to the public, McCaleb’s lawsuit will continue in federal court and can argue for future meetings to be open if the meetings discuss public policy.
In response to a request for comment, Barbara Peck, the Director of Communications for the Tennessee State Courts, directed the Tracker to the state’s filing opposing the temporary restraining order filed by McCaleb. In it, Long argues that “while the First Amendment right of access covers certain judicial and quasi-judicial proceedings and records filed in those proceedings, neither the Sixth Circuit nor the Supreme Court has ever recognized a First Amendment right of access to meetings of a state judiciary such as the TJC.”
McCaleb did not respond to requests for comment.