FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Two reporters who crashed a secret meeting of the Tennessee judiciary were forcibly removed by police after asserting their rights to cover the event as guaranteed by the Tennessee Constitution and the Open Meetings Act.
On Saturday, Nov. 6 at roughly 10:30 a.m., NoogaRadio 96.9 FM investigative reporter David Tulis was handcuffed and arrested following his inquiry into a secretive backroom-style conclave of court judges paid for at taxpayer expense.
In an arrest streamed live on social media, Tulis could be seen sitting at a table calmly asserting his right under the constitution and state law to be in the room.
Staff from the Administrative Office of the Courts vociferously objected to the presence of the press, stating that the event was a “members-only conference.” But they cited no legal authority for excluding the public. “It’s our policy,” said one unidentified court staffer.
Retorted NoogaRadio’s midstate bureau chief Christopher Sapp: “Policy does not trump law and it certainly does not supersede the constitution.”
Tulis rebutted the closed-door policy by reminding officers that according to the Tennessee constitution art. I § 17, “That all courts shall be open.”
“I’m here as a matter of right!” Tulis said. “This is a taxpayer-funded event in which public business is being conducted.” The meetings cannot be closed to the public “because Tennessee government does not — and cannot — be conducted in secret,” Tulis says.
Municipal judges from around the state had descended on the Embassy Suites hotel over the past weekend to take part in a state-sponsored annual conference to discuss the formation of public policy, court procedures, legislative recommendations, and the administration of justice — all public business.
Sapp was the first to point out potential improprieties and the lack of transparency for the way these conferences were being conducted.
“I simply wanted to monitor the conference for myself no differently than I watch the General Assembly when they are in session,” Sapp says. “When I was denied access to online log-in credentials, it prompted further inquiry as to why my request was being denied. After the AOC’s general counsel refused to yield on the matter, we decided that we would just walk into the lions’ den to see what they would do.”
Legal briefs filed in advance
Expecting resistance from AOC staffers, the journalists filed extensive briefs with Chief Justice Roger Page to avoid confusion or public embarrassment to the judiciary. Justice Page holds direct supervisory authority over the administrative director and AOC.
Tulis sent an 8-page “Memorial, remonstrance & petition invoking administrative authority to access AOC conference” via certified mail 17 days before the meeting. Sapp hand delivered a 9-page analysis on the constitutional rights of the press and the state’s open meeting laws to Supreme Court staffers on Thursday. It included 33 footnotes of legal authorities.
Sapp and Tulis were backstopped by John Gentry, a judicial reform activist who stood ready with habeas corpus petitions in hand in the event the two men were unlawfully incarcerated. Gentry was prepared to file emergency “next friend” petitions with a U.S. district court judge on behalf of the two to secure their release. Gentry is an independent candidate for governor and a staunch supporter of open government and court reform.
Tulis was arrested, handcuffed, and forced onto a gurney for a medical evaluation after stating to police, “I have the strength to report the news, but I don’t have the strength to assist you in violating my rights!”
Tulis was formally cited and charged with criminal trespass by city officer William Orange. Tulis signed the criminal citation agreeing to appear in the Williamson County general sessions court Dec. 14 at 9 a.m. Sapp was neither arrested nor issued a citation but it is unclear why.
Do judges play ‘Black Lives Matter’ bingo?
To the chagrin of AOC education director John Crawford, Franklin police officers inadvertently scooped up a judicial “bingo card” with Tulis’ computer bag during his arrest. The cards appear to mock citizens who might show up in court without an attorney. Citizens who cite constitutional rights to police officers or espouse principles of liberty are often pejoratively called “sovereign citizens.” The Southern Poverty Law Center labels such people “domestic terrorists.”
“What if the judges had been caught playing ‘Black Lives Matter’ bingo or ‘soccer moms protesting their school board’ bingo?” Sapp demands.
“The judicial branch of government is not above the law,” Sapp says. “They do not get to violate the Constitution or exempt themselves from sunshine laws by judicial fiat or by policy declarations of their own design and authority. The last time I checked, the sovereign powers of this state flow from its people rather than its hirlings. Has our Supreme Court unwittingly created a constitutional crisis?”