Tennessee high court reinstates new state Senate districts
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated the new state Senate map drawn up by Republicans this year in redistricting, ruling that a lower panel of judges didn’t properly consider how blocking the map and extending the candidate filing deadline would harm elections officials and cause voter confusion.
The 4-1 ruling doesn’t take a stance on the lower court’s determination that the GOP-controlled General Assembly violated the state’s constitution by improperly numbering the new districts. Instead, the high court focused on timing arguments.
In last week’s split decision to block the maps while the case proceeds, the lower court panel gave lawmakers 15 days to fix the maps or an “interim apportionment map” would be imposed. Meanwhile, the filing deadline for Senate hopefuls was pushed back to May 5. The order came the day before the April 7 deadline. The primary election in Tennessee is Aug. 4.
The Supreme Court ruled that the May 5 change presented “a significant delay on the election process in this state,” and the court reset the Senate filing deadline to April 14.
“We conclude that the trial court erred by granting the injunction because it failed to adequately consider the harm the injunction will have on our election officials who are detrimentally impacted by the extension of the candidate filing deadline, as well as the public interest in ensuring orderly elections and avoiding voter confusion,” Chief Justice Roger Page wrote in the majority opinion.
Tennessee’s constitution dictates that districts must be numbered consecutively in counties that have more than one. The newly drawn redistricting plan does not do that in Nashville’s Davidson County. The numbering matters because the four-year Senate terms are staggered, putting some district on the ballot in presidential election years, others in gubernatorial election cycles.
In dissent, Justice Sharon Lee wrote that there’s enough supporting evidence that extending the deadline to May 5, which was meant to “remedy a constitutional defect,” will give “election officials enough time to comply with other election deadlines, and it will not cause any disruption or voter confusion.”
Scott Tift, an attorney for the voters who filed the lawsuit funded by the state Democratic Party, said “the Tennessee Constitution is supposed to control how the Legislature draws new legislative districts.”
“Tennesseans will now go to the polls in 2022 under district maps the trial court deemed likely unconstitutional, simply because the Legislature waited until the last minute to redraw the maps,” Tift said in a statement.
A spokesperson for Republican Senate Speaker Randy McNally said he is pleased with the decision, calling the map “fair and legal.”
In the lower court panel’s decision, the judges did not block the state House districts despite claims from plaintiffs that it divided more counties than needed to create districts with roughly equal populations, diluting the power of minority voters.
The map splits 30 counties, the maximum permitted for the state House.
A footnote in the ruling said the House map could still be blocked later on and the judges ordered a trial on the matter.
This story corrects the first name of attorney Scott Tift.