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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

TN Election Officials Lose Suit Over 2008 Ouster

(CN) - Democratic elections officials who were fired after the 2008 vote have no legal claim because their positions were political and subject to patronage, the 6th Circuit ruled.

Eight Tennessee county election administrators sued election commissioners the year after the elections, claiming they were fired for not being Republicans. Election administrators are appointed by commissioners to help run elections, according to state law.

The Republican Party took control of each house in the Tennessee General Assembly in 2008, resulting in new election officials at the state and county level. The plaintiffs were soon fired by the new Republican election commissioners, according to the ruling.

A Middle Tennessee district court tossed their claims last year, holding that the position of county election administrator is subject to patronage dismissal. The ex-administrators appealed, and a divided three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit affirmed the district court's decision last week.

"Because the position of Tennessee administrator of elections is a position for which political affiliation is a permissible requirement for the effective performance of that public office, the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of defendants on the ground that plaintiffs were lawfully subject to patronage dismissal," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Griffin wrote on behalf of the majority.

Election administrator is a policymaking position and therefore falls within one category of exceptions to rules on patronage dismissal, the judge ruled. The Cincinnati-based appeals court held that politically-appointed commissioners can consider party affiliation in selecting their administrator.

"The entire operation of the election commission is a matter of political concern where the party in power is granted, by statute, control over the management of local elections in a manner that the majority political party believes best comports with the requirements of the law," Griffin wrote. "Consequently, all of the identified duties of the administrator that involve policy matters are matters of political concern."

But U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Clay dissented, arguing that political affiliation is not an appropriate requirement for a county election administrator. He noted that Tennessee election administrators serve on commissions made up of members of both parties and they don't have confidential relationships with their commissioners

"Because county election administrators enjoy neither the discretionary authority on issues of political importance nor the confidential relationship with their commissioners that would render them exempt from First Amendment protections, I would reverse the district court's grant of summary judgment," Clay wrote.

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