Lee: Legal to investigate if county breaking immigration law

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gov.-elect Bill Lee says he will direct his legal team to investigate whether Tennessee’s most populated county is following a new law that prohibits local authorities from requiring a warrant or probable cause before complying with federal immigration detainers.

Earlier this month, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said it wouldn’t detain anyone being released from jail without a warrant or probable cause because the county attorney advised that the new law doesn’t apply to them. But it will keep notifying federal authorities when noncitizens are booked.

The announcement prompted top Tennessee Republicans to declare the county wasn’t following the law, including House Speaker Glen Casada and Senate Speaker Randy McNally. However, Lee is going a step further by assigning his legal counsel to look into the matter.

Lee talked to The Associated Press about his decision and other top issues as he prepares to be sworn in Saturday. The Franklin-based Republican businessman won the top seat in November as a political newcomer against Democratic former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean.

“Obviously, we have to look at the legalities of that particular law, but if it does allow for sanctuary cities, then it would be breaking the law,” Lee said. “We’ll certainly have (legal) look at it so that we can understand it.”

The Republican-led Legislature passed the law last year banning so-called sanctuary policies during a heated election cycle that focused on immigration. Term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam let it become law without his signature, calling it “a solution looking for a problem” in a state that has outlawed sanctuary cities and has none.

Enforcement of the law calls for a local citizen to sue and a judge to rule that a policy in his or her government is in violation. To date, that has not yet happened.

While the legislation was being debated last year, candidate Lee praised it and touted his opposition to sanctuary cities — even though Tennessee never had them before the law was in place.

The term “sanctuary city” has no legal definition and varies in application, but it generally refers to jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration laws.

Lee has made criminal justice one of his top priorities as the incoming governor along with education and economic development. While talking to the AP, Lee also chatted about Haslam’s decision to grant clemency to Cyntoia Brown — a woman who killed a man when she was 16. The case had attracted global attention, including calls of support from Kim Kardashian West and singer Rihanna.

Lee declined to say if he agreed with Haslam’s decision.

“I haven’t had access to that background information so I can’t comment on my view of whether it was appropriate or not, but I certainly trust his opinion on that,” Lee said.

But he did say the state needs to look at possibly changing juvenile sentencing.

Brown faced a mandatory 51 years in prison before the chance of parole if Haslam had not intervened though she was 16 years old when sentenced for first-degree murder.

“I think the Brown case has opened up a meaningful dialogue going forward,” Lee said. “We certainly will be talking to subject matter experts in that field to explore the current state of juvenile justice and where we think it ought to go.”

Lee had less to say, however, when asked about abortion services being temporarily halted in Nashville and if he thought that was a good thing for Tennessee.

Planned Parenthood announced in December that women would have to travel hours outside the city after its Nashville clinic stopped providing abortions in the region. At the time, Planned Parenthood didn’t say what exactly sparked the suspension.

Lee sidestepped the question, saying he opposes spending public money for abortions.

Tennessee has four executions scheduled for this year, and Lee said he’s preparing to look at each case individually — but he reiterated his support of the death penalty. When asked if he’ll witness one, Lee responded “I haven’t thought about that.”

Lee will be Tennessee’s 50th governor sworn into office on Saturday in Nashville.