Echoes of Discord 

Local disagreements on key issues reflect the national partisan divide.

Local Democrats at health-bill protest

Jackson Baker

Local Democrats at health-bill protest

As partisan disagreements on pending legislative measures continued to dominate the Washington political scene, there were distinct local echoes.

Even as Democrats in Congress were trying to force open discussion of the Senate's pending version of an Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill, now being prepared in private by an ad hoc group of Republican Senators, the party faithful across the state held press conferences last Friday protesting the GOP's close-to-the-vest strategy.

In Memphis, the protest, led by London Lamar, president of the Tennessee Young Democrats and including state Representative Antonio Parkinson, was held in front of the Cliff Davis Federal Building downtown. The group's call for open discussion of health-care legislation was directed not only at congressional Republicans but at Tennessee Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and U.S. Rep. David Kustoff specifically.

Though the matter of the federal government's current direct oversight of mandated improvements in the procedures of Shelby County's Juvenile Court was not, per se, a partisan issue, local attitudes toward it have tended to cleave along party lines.

Such, at least, was the appearance of things after news accounts surfaced over the weekend detailing recent efforts by three county officials seeking an end to federal oversight of Shelby County Juvenile Court, the result of a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between the county and the Department of Justice.

The officials — county Mayor Mark Luttrell, Sheriff Bill Oldham, and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael — were all elected under the Republican electoral banner. 

The three officials discussed the matter of ending the federal oversight with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his recent visit to Memphis. As attorney general, Sessions has taken a hard-line approach to law enforcement, focusing on what he sees as a need for more stringent enforcement and stricter penalties.

Luttrell, Oldham, and Michael subsequently elaborated on their request in a formal letter to the DOJ, which maintained that the court's shortcomings — pinpointed in the DOJ investigation and subsequent MOU — have been rectified.

That claim drew negative reaction, much of it from local Democrats. One critic was state Representative Larry Miller, speaking as a panelist Monday morning at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Answering a question from the audience about legislative action on juvenile justice, Miller noted the county officials' letter to the DOJ and took issue with it: "They're saying, 'We've done it. ... We no longer need oversight.'" Disagreeing, Miller said, "We're not there yet. The system is based on incarceration of young black men."

A more reserved response came from former county Commissioner Sidney Chism, now an employee of the Sheriff's Department and a declared candidate in next year's race for county mayor. Said Chism, evidently speaking on behalf of Sheriff Oldham: "He has taken the goals seriously and has worked hard to achieve them, and I think he believes they have been achieved."

Two legislators who were on Monday's panel at the NCRM — state representatives Joe Towns and John DeBerry — commented afterward that the MOU should remain in effect but acknowledged, like Chism, that Luttrell, Michael, and Oldham seemed to have made good-faith efforts to raise the standards in effect at Juvenile Court.

But another nay vote came from 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, who noted in a prepared statement that he had supported the original intervention by the Justice Department and said, "While progress has been made since 2012, there are still reports of race playing a factor in court hearings and reports of the juvenile detention facilities becoming more dangerous." 

As of Tuesday, Sessions had not formally responded to the officials' request.

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