Tennessee Supreme Court reverses lower court order blocking state's new Senate map

·3 min read
The Tennessee Supreme Court building: The building was completed in 1937 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is used by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals, and is home to a museum of state court history. Source: https://www.tn.gov/museum
The Tennessee Supreme Court building: The building was completed in 1937 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. It is used by the Tennessee Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals, and is home to a museum of state court history. Source: https://www.tn.gov/museum

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a lower court's temporary injunction blocking a new Senate map, allowing the state to proceed with senatorial elections under districts Democrats have criticized as unconstitutional.

The court's judgment does not rule on the merits of the lawsuit, filed in February by three Tennessee Democratic Party-backed plaintiffs, but finds the trial court erred in granting an untimely injunction.

In its opinion, the court wrote the lower court "abused its discretion" by issuing the injunction, which came just a day before the Senate candidate filing deadline. The Supreme Court majority said the injunction could harm "the public interest in ensuring orderly elections and avoiding voter confusion."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, is "pleased' with the decision, a spokesperson said.

"The Senate has always maintained it drew a fair and legal map in an open and transparent process," McNally spokesperson Adam Kleinheider said.

Attorney General Herbert Slatery argued last week the injunction could "wreak electoral chaos" as it came 24 hours before the candidate filing deadline on April 7 for Senate legislative elections.

"After brazenly violating the constitutional language and dragging their feet on the maps, the General Assembly is now going to have the maps proceed because of the timing they created," said Scott Tift, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "It's a sad day for Tennesseans that by by dragging their feet, the Legislature is able to procedurally violate the Constitution and get away with it."

The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday reversed the lower court's decision to extend the filing deadline, giving prospective Senate candidates until 4 p.m. on April 14 to file.

Related: Tennessee appeals redistricting ruling after judges block Senate map

The plaintiffs allege the General Assembly, where the GOP holds a supermajority, unconstitutionally divided more counties than necessary in drawing the House map, as well as numbering Senate districts nonconsecutively.

The plaintiffs argued nonconsecutive numbering is unconstitutional, as the Tennessee Constitution states, "In a county having more than one senatorial district, the districts shall be numbered consecutively."

The numbering plays a role in election cycles where even-numbered districts are elected in presidential election years and odd-numbered districts in gubernatorial election years.

In its Wednesday ruling, the Supreme Court majority overruled its own hand-picked judge panel.

General Assembly Republicans last year passed legislation aimed at reshaping the state's judicial system over concerns Davidson County judges were too liberal and held outsize influence over state laws and regulations.

More: New three-judge panels to hear challenges to state law under plan approved by Tennessee lawmakers

Under the new law, the state Supreme Court can step in and appoint a three-judge panel to hear constitutional claims against the state and redistricting issues. The judges must represent all three Grand Divisions.

For the redistricting lawsuit, the Supreme Court picked two justices, Circuit Court Judge Michael Sharp from East Tennessee and West Tennessee Chancellor Steven Maroney, to join Davidson County Chancellor Russel Perkins on the case.

Last week, the panel issued the injunction and ordered the Senate to submit a new map to address the numbering issue within 15 days, or the panel would submit its own version for use.

Senate Republican leadership last week expressed shock the map was blocked, saying they had assurances from the Attorney General's office that the map would withstand constitutional challenges.

The redistricting lawsuit is still ongoing, despite the injunction's reversal, though a trial on the issue is likely months away.

Reach Melissa Brown at mabrown@tennessean.com.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee Supreme Court vacates injunction on Senate redistricting map