(CN) — A panel of three state judges in Tennessee heard arguments Tuesday in a case seeking an injunction against a new law that will reduce the size of the consolidated municipal government in Nashville and Davidson County.
The law was signed by Republican Governor Bill Lee on March 9 and more broadly caps at 20 the number of members that may be elected to any governing body of any metropolitan or municipal government in the state.
But for more than six decades, the Nashville consolidated government has been the only municipal body to exceed that number of members, with its diverse 40-member Metropolitan Council. The majority-white, Republican Legislature introduced the bill after the council declined to host the 2024 Republican National Convention.
The law mandates a rapid reformation of the consolidated government, in which 20 new council districts must be drawn by April 10 and approved by May 1. The law upends the council’s current election season, where candidates have already begun campaigning and raising funds for a general election scheduled Aug. 3.
If the council fails to do so, the law extended current council members’ terms for a period of one year, while reducing the first term of the new council to three years and also scheduling a new election for Aug. 6, 2024. The council filed its lawsuit against the state March 13 in Davidson County Chancery Court.
Arguing on behalf of the council Tuesday, attorney Allison L. Bussell said the law violated Tennessee’s home rule doctrine as well as constitutional limits on the four-year length of terms.
“This is a radical infringement on local sovereignty,” Bussell told the panel consisting of Chancellors Patricia Moskal and Jerri Bryant and Judge Mary Wagner. “This has been a rushed, chaotic redistricting process with a constant flurry of issues to address.”
Bussell said the council was expending significant human and financial resources in order to comply with the law by the deadlines provided, but if the election were held in August as the Legislature demands, it would leave both candidates and voters in a lurch.
“Metro Nashville is having to make extraordinarily important public policy decisions right now based on an unconstitutional law and they have very little time to do that,” she said.
Regarding home rule, Bussell contended the law is both clear and contradictory to the bill targeting Nashville: “The [Legislature] shall have no power to pass an act having the effect of removing an incumbent, abridging a term, or altering salary before the end of term.”
Bussell didn’t mention the RNC, but suggested the legislation was a “ripper bill,” a nickname given to partisan laws intended to replace adverse incumbents with political allies.
Metro Council Director of Law Wally Dietz was more explicit, calling the bill a fatally flawed “assault on the very core of the metro government itself.” Dietz said the council's size and diversity are points of pride for residents, who have never expressed wide dissatisfaction with the council’s structure.
“When we talk about home rule, we’re talking about the people in Nashville, people who made the decision about where they wanted to live,” he argued. “This is where we live and work and raise our families and make friendships. We should be the one to decide how big this council is and how those seats are allocated.”
Dietz said the current council district maps were completed just last year, and candidates currently reporting campaign financing have raised more than $500,000.
“Because of this act, no one — not the candidates, not the incumbents, not the voters — has a clue today what council district they will be in for this election,” he said, warning that “the integrity of this election is dangerously at risk.”
Representing the state defendants, Assistant Attorney General Timothy Simonds said the Legislature “has very broad powers of discretion over local governments.”
“Contrary to the plaintiffs’ assertions, we contend the act is fully constitutional,” he said, citing case law to suggest the bill’s transitional provisions allow the council to “come into compliance in a reasonable fashion.”
Simonds disagreed with Bussell’s characterization of the law as a “ripper bill."
“[It] doesn’t infringe on the existing terms of incumbents,” he said.
Simonds further argued the council has already made significant progress on redrawing the districts and could very well meet the May 1 deadline.
“We believe if they take appropriate action and there is sufficient public education and disclosure about what is going on, they could implement this for the purposes of the August 2023 election and stay in compliance with the act where the one-year extension wouldn’t come into play,” he said.
In rebuttal, Bussell said the state made the exact opposite argument in 2022 in a separate case over the House redistricting plan.
“The state has an interest in protecting the integrity of elections and the state should not be permitted to pick and choose when they effectuate that interest,” she said. “This case is about democracy and we are asking the court to protect democracy and grant an injunction in favor of Metro Nashville.”
Moskal said the panel will take arguments under consideration and issue an opinion in a timely manner with respect to the deadlines of the bill.Follow @gabetynes
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