The Tennessee State Capitol with locked gates. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A Republican lawmaker filed legislation on Wednesday to begin the process to remove the Nashville judge whose ruling last year expanded absentee voting during the pandemic.
State Rep. Tim Rudd’s resolution would authorize state Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton to appoint a committee to consider the removal of Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle.
Rudd said he filed the resolution in response to Lyle’s ruling, which allowed fear of COVID-19 as an acceptable reason to request an absentee ballot. Lyle’s order expanded absentee voting substantially for the August primary election.
The state Supreme Court reversed the portion of Lyle’s ruling regarding fear of the virus as a reason to vote by mail, but the court upheld much of her order. At the 11th hour, state attorneys reversed their pleadings in the lower court and told the Supreme Court the state would relent on allowing voters with pre-existing conditions making them susceptible to COVID-19 to vote by mail.
Tennessee was one of just five states where all voters were not allowed to vote by mail for the November election.
Lyle is a highly regarded judge, who was appointed to the bench in 1996 by Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican. The Davidson County Chancery Court is a battleground for lawsuits over Republican laws and policies, because that is the state court where many such legal challenges must be filed.
“The American representative democracy is deeply dependent on two things: A neutral free press to give citizens unbiased and unopinionated information from which to make their decisions, and a fair and non-partisan judiciary dedicated to upholding the Tennessee State Constitution without legislating from the bench,” Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, said in a written statement provided to the Tennessee Lookout. “Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle violated the boundaries between the legislative and judiciary when she attempted to disregard state law and implement her own rules, personal opinions and policies that were in direct contradiction of existing state law.
“She knew and fully understood the Tennessee General Assembly did not authorize or support mass-mail balloting. The legislature is the only authority in Tennessee that can write laws or hold elections.”
The question of expanding absentee voting has hung over states across the country, with Republican-led legislatures filing an array of bills to curb the practice.
Plaintiffs in Tennessee filed a suit to expand absentee voting, in several cases citing pre-existing conditions that would make them prone to severe cases of COVID-19 if they contracted the virus. State attorneys representing Secretary of State Tre Hargett and state Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins argued it would be costly and onerous to prepare for a cavalcade of absentee ballots just a few weeks before the August election.
Lyle ruled that fear of contracting the virus was a good enough reason, but the matter was not immediately settled. Plaintiffs filed a subsequent motion accusing the state of not complying with Lyle’s order.
In a follow-up hearing, Lyle rebuked the state officials for not following her order by posting the appropriate language on absentee ballot request forms. Lyle threatened state officials with contempt of court charges if they did not comply.
“I just really have to say to that point shame on you for not following that procedure, and just taking matters into your own hands,” Lyle said at the time. “So I’m calling the state out on that for not adhering to the standards of legal process and not adhering to the order.”
In his prepared remarks on Thursday, Rudd alluded to Lyle’s threat of contempt of court charges against Hargett and Goins. He accused Lyle of judicial overreach in her ruling.
“The U.S. Constitution plainly states ‘The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations’ (Article I, section 4),” Rudd said. “The last time I looked, the words, ‘Judiciary having the power to hold elections’ was not in the U.S. Constitution or the Tennessee State Constitution.
“Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle overstepped her responsibilities and violated her oath. She further threatened state officials with incarceration if they did not break the law by implementing her rules. Her conduct is egregious and grossly unprofessional.”
Lyle has a strong reputation in Nashville’s legal community, and attorneys took to social media to defend her. Nashville bankruptcy attorney David Anthony tweeted, “Chancellor Lyle is the best judge I’ve ever appeared in front of. The Tennessee judicial system is lucky to have her.”
(Republicans) are trying to remove an elected judge for simply issuing a legal opinion to uphold the voting rights of Tennesseans and enforcing her order — simply because they disagree with her and don't want people to vote.
– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said the resolution “epitomizes the radical extremism of today’s GOP, as well as their fundamental misunderstanding of how government works.”
“If you step back and think about what they’re really trying to do here, it should blow your hair back,” Clemmons said. “They are trying to remove an elected judge for simply issuing a legal opinion to uphold the voting rights of Tennesseans and enforcing her order – simply because they disagree with her and don’t want people to vote. The fact that any lawmaker thinks this is even remotely appropriate is absolutely jaw-dropping.”
State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, who is an attorney, also blasted the legislation. In addition to the absentee voting lawsuit, Lyle is in the midst of presiding over a lawsuit brought about by Shelby County and Metro Nashville Public Schools accusing the state of inadequately funding public education in those districts. Yarbro, D-Nashville, tweeted on Thursday that Rudd’s legislation is “dangerous to the independence of the judiciary and the credibility of the state of Tennessee.”
Last year, Lyle also struck down a referendum proposal that sought to unwind Metro’s recent property tax increase and overhaul how bonds are issued in Nashville. She called the proposal unconstitutional.
A spokeswoman said Lyle has no comment on the bill at this time.
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