Lack of a Comma Has Big Legal Implications in Tenn.
Official uses grammar to make investigative records harder to get
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 4, 2015 3:47 PM CDT
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery says a missing comma is preventing city councils from requesting investigative records from the state.   (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

(Newser) – How important are commas? Well, the lack of one is stopping Tennessee city councils from requesting investigative records from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Tennessean reports. In July, the TBI looked into the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old black man by a white officer in Memphis. In the wake of that shooting, as well as other high-profile cases, state legislator Antonio Parkinson asked the state's attorney general, Herbert Slatery, to weigh in on who can legally obtain investigative records from the TBI. "Especially in cases of officer shootings, people have the right to know what happened," Parkinson tells the Tennessean. "I do also understand the need to make sure the investigations are not tainted, and that the information is not put out there too early."

On Aug. 25, Slatery released his opinion, and it hinged on a comma. As written, the pertinent law states records can be released "only in compliance with a subpoena or an order of a court of record." According to Slatery's opinion, the lack of a comma after "subpoena" means both subpoenas and orders have to come from courts of record. If there was a comma, then subpoenas could come from anywhere and only orders would have to come from courts of records. Got it? Basically, Slatery's opinion means only judges—and not city councils—can request the TBI's investigative records. But, as the Tennessean notes, the TBI says it's never received a subpoena from a city council anyway.