Tennessee is reopening and it cannot come soon enough. In fact, I wish it would have come a whole lot sooner. More than a month ago I said as much in a letter I sent to our governor. I requested he lift these restrictions immediately for the good of all Tennesseans.
Small businesses are faced with the prospect of closing for good. Workers are growing uncertain if they can support their families. We are losing millions in economic output. It’s all being inflicted unconstitutionally, with no regard to balanced distribution of power outlined in the Tennessee Constitution. And it has to stop.
In my letter, I pleaded with the governor to end his stay-at-home orders because of the “destruction” on Tennessee’s economy, businesses and the men and women in the workforce. Not only does it impact us financially, but the mental health of our citizens is suffering as well with an increased rate of suicide — one week resulting in more deaths to suicide in Tennessee than to COVID-19. The data and medical research we’re now seeing no longer supports a shutdown, so it’s time to act.
I am not just saying this for myself. It is what my constituents want. I know, I asked them. Among nearly 9,000 people I polled on Facebook on April 13, 55 percent told me they were in favor of lifting the restrictions imposed by the governor’s executive order. People are justifiably worried both about getting sick and being out of work. But there are reasonable precautions we all can take to prevent ourselves and others from getting sick. There is no way to prevent yourself from losing your job when you are stuck at home and your company is idle.
I also do not think the governor had the legal authority to invoke an order that closed businesses, dictated Tennesseans’ health care decisions and prohibited people from exercising their right to gather. And, as an attorney who knows firsthand the importance of constitutional governance, it worries me just as much as the other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am a Tennessee licensed attorney. I have been in practice for 30 years and have served as an assistant attorney general and an assistant district attorney general. I am also a former federal judicial law clerk. I have studied this. The governor claims he acted under the 2010 “Emergency Management Powers” afforded to him in Tennessee law. That law did grant him powers, but the state legislature did so unconstitutionally in giving the governor legislative powers in times of emergency.
When it comes to the distribution of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial departments of state, the Tennessee Constitution is quite clear: “No person or persons belonging to one of these departments shall exercise any of the powers properly belonging to either of the others, except in the cases herein directed or permitted.”
Nowhere in the state constitution do I see it directed or permitted for the state legislature to hand its power to the governor in a time of emergency. But beyond that, much like the U.S. Constitution, the Tennessee Constitution is premised upon the protection of unalienable individual rights that exist with or without government. This is clearly unconstitutional.
Along with my letter to the governor, I have also sent a letter to the state attorney general outlining my concerns. We need to be cautious and responsible during this time when it comes to the COVID-19 but also when it comes to our liberties. We cannot sit idly by.
• Bruce Griffey is a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives and represents District 75. He is currently a member of the House Constitutional Protections & Sentencing Subcommittee.
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