Home » News » Nashville school-shooting families accuse senator of using bill to get his way in records lawsuit

By Travis Loller, The Associated Press, published on April 12, 2024

Select Dynamic field

The entrance to the Covenant School is seen on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting, March 27, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo/George Walker IV, file

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Family members representing the six people killed in a Nashville school shooting last year have filed an ethics complaint against a Tennessee state senator, arguing he is being self-serving by both suing for the release of the shooter’s writings and filing legislation to prevent third parties like them from intervening in public-records lawsuits.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire is one of several people who filed open-records requests last year seeking access to journals and other materials collected by Metro Nashville Police during their investigation. Police have said they will release the documents, but not until their investigation is closed, which is expected to be in a few months.

When their records request was denied last year, the senator and several others sued to force the release of the records. They argue there is not an open investigation because the shooter is dead, killed by police, and no one else is being prosecuted. But the case has been complicated and delayed by a dispute over who can be a party to the lawsuit.

A group of Covenant parents, the Covenant School and the Covenant Presbyterian Church that shares its building all sought to intervene in the case and were eventually granted that right by the court. The school and the church are seeking to ensure that no details are made public that could jeopardize the security of the building. The parents do not want any of the documents released, arguing that they could further traumatize their children and inspire copycats.

A hearing in the records case is scheduled to begin on April 16.

After losing the battle over who could intervene in court, the Chattanooga Republican sponsored a bill this year that states “intervention by a non-governmental third party in a public records lawsuit is not permitted.”

Although the bill is not retroactive, the ethics complaint filed on April 9 accuses Gardenhire of “using his position as a State Senator to pass legislation in order to eliminate opposing parties.” The complaint says Gardenhire should have disclosed his involvement in the Covenant records lawsuit but didn’t.

Speaking for the bill in the Senate State and Local Government Committee on March 12, Gardenhire told his fellow lawmakers, “Third party intervenors take away the government’s control of its own records.” However, he did not mention the records lawsuit. On March 18, the bill passed the Senate without debate or opposition. It is scheduled to be taken up by the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, a victim’s rights group sent an email to House members on April 10 urging them to oppose the legislation.

“Today, sadly, in an environment where criminals are given more rights than victims, this is just another blow to victims if this bill passes, taking away what little power they may have after a victimization to keep some semblance of dignity in the middle of a horrible nightmare that changes their life forever,” wrote Verna Wyatt, co-founder of Tennessee Voices for Victims.

Gardenhire declined to comment through a spokesperson.

It is now up to the Senate Ethics Committee to decide if it will take up the complaint in the remaining weeks of the legislative session. In 2022 the panel — made up of four Republicans and one Democrat — met after receiving an internal complaint against former Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson regarding her wire-fraud conviction, and the Republicans recommended her removal.

The Free Speech Center newsletter offers a digest of First Amendment- and news media-related news every other week. Subscribe for free here: https://bit.ly/3kG9uiJ


More than 1,700 articles on First Amendment topics, court cases and history