Public records bill dropped in House as retribution for failure of unrelated measure

Rep. Jody Barrett, R-Dickson, right, signals that he wants to make a motion to discipline Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, for recording video on the House floor on April 23, 2024. (Credit: Erik Schelzig)

May 01, 2024

In the waning days of Tennessee lawmakers’ annual session last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Todd Gardenhire got a bill passed unanimously in the upper chamber to prevent non-governmental third parties from intervening in public record lawsuits.

But the sponsor of the companion bill decided against taking up the measure on the last day the House met, saying his decision was due in part to feeling aggrieved by changes made to a different bill in Gardenhire’s committee earlier in the year.

Gardenhire, a Chattanooga Republican, introduced the public records bill following a legal fight that he, several news organizations and open government advocates engaged in to access information about the shooter who killed six people at the Covenant School in Nashville last year.

At issue for Gardenhire was Nashville police officials’ refusal to release journals and writings of  28-year-old former student and Covenant shooter, Audrey Haile, who was killed by responding officers. Police said it remains an active investigation. 

Gardenhire said he needed access to Haile’s writings to help glean clues of what might be done to prevent future tragedies. Haile, who identified as Aiden, was being treated for mental illness. 

The Covenant School community united against the bill. And the lawsuit was rebuffed in a 2023 ruling by Davidson County Chancellor I’Ashea Myles, who allowed intervention by families, the school and the church. The state Court of Appeals upheld Myles’ ruling, remanding the case back to her for further disposition. Nashville police say they will release the records once their investigation is finally complete.

Then Gardenhire bill sought to establish that “only a requestor has standing to file an action under this section, and intervention by a non-governmental third party in a public records lawsuit is not permitted.”

The measure prompted families of the three children and three adults killed in last year’s shooting to file a Senate ethics complaint against Gardenhire for being part of a lawsuit seeking release of the writings while simultaneously filing a bill to block third parties from seeking to intervene in public record lawsuits.

Gardenhire said the allegations were spurious due to his legislation not applying to the Covenant shooting case because it was not retroactive.

Tit for tat?

The House sponsor, freshman Rep. Jody Barrett, a Republican attorney from Dickson, said in an interview Tuesday he decided not to push his version of the measure to a final floor vote for several reasons. They included “some pushback once it got to the floor,” Barrett said, adding he believed that was due to the school “or one of the Covenant groups” lobbying against the bill.

Barrett also said he “started getting some indications from even my own leadership that there were several members who had some heartburn over that bill.”

At the same time, Barrett said, he was also “having conversations” with the Senate about an obscenity bill he was sponsoring. It would have added civil liability and damages and attorneys’ fees to existing criminal penalties for anyone convicted of selling, sending or distributing obscene material. The measure ended up in a conference committee to try to hash out a compromise over competing approaches.

“In conference that didn’t go the way it should have gone,” Barrett said. “So I lost interest or motivation I had in trying to push Gardenhire’s bill for him.” 

“The crux of the matter, I don’t mind stating this, I had a bill that was very important to me. He had a bill that was very important to him,” he said. “And we didn’t work together to make sure both of our interests were served.”

Barrett said Republican Sen. Paul Rose of Covington, the sponsor of the obscenity bill in the upper chamber, got together with Gardenhire to “put an amendment on the bill without talking to me or having any conversation about what they were doing that initially gutted that bill.” 

“What they did is that they changed it to read that a cause of action would only accrue if and when a conviction was obtained,” he said.

Gardenhire was nonplussed by Barrett’s comments.

“Since Rep. Barrett is a freshman and obviously doesn’t understand how the process of committee and committee amendments works, he should have asked somebody about a committee amendment because all I did as chairman of the committee was sign a form,” Gardenhire said. “And the amendment came from Sen. Rose at the advice of our legal counsel. And people in the House recommended it.” 

“And for him to hold my bill hostage, it had nothing to do with his [bill], he ought to be ashamed of himself,” Gardenhire said. “He should have checked with Sen. Rose as to what happened instead of assuming what happened.”

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