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Effectiveness Of Process For Challenging Tennessee Laws Questioned

Image Credit: Brent Moore / CC

The Tennessee Conservative Staff –

A law passed in 2021, changing the way state laws are challenged, has some concerned that the door has been opened for partisan redistricting in Tennessee and dissension among panel judges.

Supporters of the legislation agreed that it made more sense to have a three-judge panel, made up of one from each of the grand divisions in the state, to hear cases against the state instead of judges from one area making decisions that would affect the entire state.

The law requires that these three-judge panels handle any constitutional challenges to Tennessee laws, but some argue that it has a greater impact on gerrymandering lawsuits.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that cases involving accusations of partisan gerrymandering cannot be heard by federal courts. Instead, cases that challenge legislative redistricting must be heard in state level courts.

Akram Faizer, a law professor from Lincoln Memorial University, says those cases would have to make it through Chancery Court, the Tennessee Court of Appeals, and eventually the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“The Tennessee Supreme Court is very, very, very afraid of the General Assembly because they don’t have lifetime appointments,” Faizer said.

After Governor Bill Lee signed the state’s new redistricting plan, splitting Davidson County, a group of voters filed a lawsuit against state officials, saying it divided the county excessively to benefit the Republican party. They claimed this was against the state’s constitution.

The split three-judge panel eventually ruled in November 2023 in the state’s favor on the newly drawn House maps. Only Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins voted against the state.

Faizer claims that represents “the exact design of the law.”

However, not every decision made since the law went into effect has been in the state’s favor. 

In the past year, Metro Nashville has won four different suits against the state, bringing a challenge to laws that local leaders say would have removed the city’s ability to govern itself.

One challenged law would have cut the number of Metro Council members from 40 to 20. The panel blocked the implementation of the law but did not call it unconstitutional. The judges will decide if the law will go into effect after March 26 arguments from the city and the state.

According to The Tennessean, there are 17 ongoing or closed cases where a three-judge panel has been used in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of a state law. The only disagreements among the judges have been in the state House redistricting and Metro Council lawsuits; they have agreed on all other decisions.

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