Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Senate Republicans caught off guard by redistricting ruling

April 8, 2022 7:01 am
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally slams opponents of an ethics bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally slams opponents of an ethics bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Senate Republicans who rule the roost in the Legislature were reportedly “shocked” this week when a three-judge panel blocked their Senate redistricting plan, finding it violated the state Constitution.

The opinion forced the state to file an appeal in the Tennessee Court of Appeals arguing the decision will throw the state’s elections into chaos. 

The move came the day after the judicial panel, in a 2-1 ruling, gave the state 15 days to redraw the Senate redistricting plan, otherwise it would take on the task. The panel also extended the qualifying deadline for Senate candidates until May 5.

The three-judge panel determined the Senate redistricting plan violated a constitutional provision requiring counties with multiple Senate seats have districts numbered consecutively. In this case, the law makes sure Davidson County has two senators elected to four-year terms every two years. 

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally admitted Thursday the Senate was aware of the requirement for sequential numbers. But he said Attorney General Herbert Slatery advised it would withstand a constitutional challenge because previous Democratic-led legislatures had done it. He also said the AG’s Office felt it more important to create a majority minority district in Nashville than to focus on district numbers.

“I don’t know that he let us down,” McNally said in response to questions from reporters. “The court let us down.”

Three plaintiffs, backed by the Tennessee Democratic Party, sued the state in February to block the House and Senate redistricting plans, claiming they were unconstitutional. No challenge has been filed against the Legislature’s congressional redistricting plan, which splits Davidson into three seats.

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally admitted Thursday the Senate was aware of a requirement to sequentially number districts  with multiple Senate districts, but said Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slatery assured lawmakers their plan would withstand a constitutional challenge.

Asked if Senate Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the chamber, could present a new map within a 15-day deadline, McNally said it could be done if the appeals court rejects the state’s challenge. But he noted a new map might not be as good as the one they submitted, and he added “we went out of our way in Nashville to provide a majority minority district.” He pointed out the plan Democrats proposed didn’t create a majority minority district in Davidson.

McNally said any changes would require more than simply renumbering districts and that alterations made in Nashville would have a “ripple effect” statewide.

If the appeal fails, the Senate will have to consider legislation to handle the matter, which is expected to delay the Legislature’s adjournment until very late April or the first week of May.

The Senate plan ran into trouble because it placed part of Lebanon Republican Sen. Mark Pody’s District 17 in Antioch. It previously ran from Wilson County into several rural counties. The plan also moved part of Gallatin Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile’s District 18 out of eastern Davidson County, while leaving the 19th, 20th and 21st district seats held by Democrats in Davidson. Nashville Democratic Sen. Brenda Gilmore’s seat is considered the majority minority district in the plan.

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: "The complaint that the Democratic map does not adequately ensure minority representation is somewhat ridiculous." (Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville: “The complaint that the Democratic map does not adequately ensure minority representation is somewhat ridiculous.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro of Nashville argued Thursday that a majority minority district could be drawn in Davidson County and still keep the district numbers consecutive. 

“The complaint that the Democratic map does not adequately ensure minority representation is somewhat ridiculous,” Yarbro said. 

He contended the bigger problem is the rule requiring consecutive numbers in counties with more than one Senate district.

House plan remains in question

The judicial panel declined to place an injunction on the House redistricting plan, even though plaintiffs who sued the state argued it unnecessarily split 30 districts and watered down minority representation. 

Thus, the House plan would move forward at least for two years, since the qualifying deadline was Thursday.

Still, the panel concluded “that a trial should be held before injunctive relief would potentially be appropriate on the House plan.” 

In fact, one of the panel’s members felt both the House and Senate plan should be temporarily blocked because the House plan could have had much fewer than 30 county splits, according to a footnote in the ruling. The House is also controlled by a Republican supermajority.

That member of the panel ultimately decided a footnote in the opinion would suffice, since the majority opted to enjoin the Senate plan and the panel isn’t bound by its decision as it continues looking into the case.

Asked Thursday about the ruling’s statement on the potential for a trial on the House plan, House Speaker Cameron Sexton said, “I think there’s one judge that didn’t like that we split 30, but we didn’t get enjoined, so we feel very comfortable where we’re at.”

Nashville Chancellor Russell Perkins and Bradley County Circuit Judge J. Michael Sharp concurred on the majority opinion. Chancellor Steven W. Maroney of Jackson dissented in the ruling.

The Legislature created the three-judge panel in 2021 to hear redistricting challenges and other constitutional lawsuits. Opponents of the measure feared it would stack the deck in favor of the state.

I reckon this ruling shows judges will be judges.

Windle bucks Dems

Veteran Democratic state Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston confirmed Thursday he filed for re-election to House District 41 on the Cumberland Plateau – but this time as an independent.

After 32 years, he is leaving the Democratic Party. 

Windle declined to discuss the decision Thursday after the House session, saying it would take a lengthy interview. But Windle has often voted with Republicans on social issues, mainly because of the voices of constituents. In some instances, maybe the party has left him on an island.

A former assistant district attorney and colonel in the Tennessee Army National Guard, Windle is said to have been offered a promotion to general in return for a vote in favor of the governor’s education savings account bill when it was deadlocked in 2019. Windle declined to change his mind, and the bill passed after a Republican House member switched his vote. The law remains tied up with the Supreme Court.

The allegation could be part of an FBI investigation into corruption on Capitol Hill.

Man overboard: The House Democratic Caucus fights to keep Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, from jumping ship. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. John Mark Windle leaves the Democratic Party. (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie said Thursday he had not spoken with Windle about the matter but noted he would be allowed to caucus with the group.

Dixie, a Nashville Democrat, said he doesn’t think Windle left the party out of “malice” but had to do what was best for him politically.

“He’s been one of us for over 30 years, so he’s always going to be one of us,” Dixie said.

Windle’s decision leaves Democrats with 25 seats in the 99-member House.

Show us the money

Most people remember the income tax protesters who honked horns and threw bricks through windows more than 20 years ago.

Most forget the Legislature tacked a penny on the sales tax to balance the budget after the income tax tanked in 2002. Probably even fewer remember the state took all the revenue for itself rather than sharing with city governments, which it had done with sales taxes for decades.

With state coffers brimming, state Sen. Richard Briggs is trying to balance the ledgers somewhat by steering about half of that penny to city governments. 

The problem is it means the state would send more than $48 million to city governments next fiscal year and afterward. Because of that impact, the legislation, SB2076, has been placed “behind the budget,” meaning it won’t be given consideration until the Legislature passes a budget this session.

“I think it’s going to take a change of how we think about things at the state level,” Briggs, a Knoxville Republican, says. “Because what’s really happened is the state’s gotten fatter and fatter with what they have, whereas the cities are running really lean.”

The state’s surplus is running in the billions and growing.

When the state started slicing Hall tax on investments and dividends, that took a big chunk away from local governments, forcing them to reduce services or find ways to replace that revenue.

“As conservative Republicans, we always say we want to keep taxes low. But what we’re doing by starving the cities, we’re gonna be forcing the cities to increase the property taxes” or local option sales taxes, Briggs says.

The bill is in the works, and Briggs hopes it can gain some traction in late April, at least in advance of next year if it doesn’t advance this session. 

As conservative Republicans, we always say we want to keep taxes low. But what we’re doing by starving the cities, we’re gonna be forcing the cities to increase the property taxes.

– Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville

The Tennessee Municipal League is starting to see some movement but is cautiously optimistic. 

Lt. Gov. McNally’s spokesman Adam Kleinheider said in a statement this week, “The bill’s fiscal note ensures that it will be behind the budget. While the proposal could be part of the budget discussion this year, Lt. Gov. McNally has not fully evaluated it or its potential impact on the currently proposed budget.”

It looks as if the Tennessee Municipal League has a bit of lobbying to do. They need to sharpen their tools if they’re gonna hoe this row.

That’s what she said

The ex-wife of state Rep. David Hawk visited the Legislature recently, and it didn’t turn out too well. 

In accusing lawmakers of trying to pass legislation that could keep her from running for a judgeship in Greene County, Greeneville attorney Crystal Jessee hit a wall.

In a recent House Civil Justice Subcommittee meeting, Jessee testified against legislation by Republican Rep. Michael Curcio that would put a 10-year hold on judicial candidates who’ve been disciplined for unethical behavior by the Professional Board of Responsibility, which oversees attorney ethics across the state.

Jessee, who is running for Circuit Court judge in the 3rd Judicial District, admitted she was censured in 2014 for acts she committed in 2007 and claimed that the bill could stop her candidacy.

“I am here worried it is very specific,” she told the subcommittee.

Hawk, who is not on the subcommittee, previously sponsored the legislation but then handed it off to Curcio, who said it merely gives a 10-year “cooling off” period to attorneys who get in trouble so they can put their affairs in order before running for a judgeship.

Jessee is also in a tiff with a Greene County judge who recused himself from a DUI case she’s handling, after accusing her of making false statements about him, according to a Greeneville Sun article.

Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. also made note of a 2012 federal magistrate finding that determined she violated the federal and state wiretapping acts; tricked her husband into signing a prenuptial agreement and then changed some of the pages.

Jessee complained that Bailey spoke badly about her, calling her a “black widow” and trying to campaign against her. Her last husband died, according to the article, and she told the judge she was having trouble handling the legal cases he left behind.

According to the article, Bailey is married to a former wife of Hawk.

Is this getting confusing yet?

Marital escapades aside, state Rep. Johnny Garrett, a Goodlettsville Republican and attorney, said he wasn’t trying to make the debate about Jessee but raised questions about whether an attorney who had been censured would be qualified to serve as a judge.

Jessee, of course, believes a lawyer in that situation would be qualified.

But Rep. Andrew Farmer, a Sevierville Republican and attorney, really challenged her assertion that a person found to have violated a federal wiretap law should be serving on the bench.

“If I was in a situation like that, I would hope the board would take my license,” Farmer said. 

He refused to apologize for supporting legislation that could interfere with her candidacy.

Outgoing Republican Rep. Brandon Ogles defended Jessee to an extent, asking her if she had “a problem” with the legislator who previously filed the bill.

“Yes, it’s my ex-husband,” she said, referring to Hawk.

Despite that and apparently irritated with the testimony, the subcommittee sent the bill on to the next step.

The measure has been placed on the House floor calendar for April 14 but has not been scheduled for consideration by the full Senate.

With the qualifying deadline already gone, it’s unclear whether the measure would stop her from running or serving. 

But it sure is a crazy world, and some of us are wondering what’s in the drinking water in Greeneville.

Celebrating Judge Jackson

House Minority Leader Karen Camper got emotional Thursday as she rejoiced in the impending confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Calling it an amazing day for the nation, Camper said she believes Jackson is “one of the most qualified selections” ever for the court.

“She is not just an inspiration to young Black girls but to anyone with a dream and the tenacity to make it a reality. Ketanji Brown Jackson is America,” she said in a statement.

Camper contends Jackson faced one of the most difficult confirmation tests in recent history and won only after an exceedingly close vote.

House Minority Leader Karen Camper on the confirmation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court: “She is not just an inspiration to young Black girls but to anyone with a dream and the tenacity to make it a reality.

A member of several groups involving Black women and legislators nationally, Camper said she and others knew when President Joe Biden announced he would appoint a Black woman to replace Justice Stephen Breyer, the nominee would be in for a fight.

Neither Sen. Bill Hagerty nor Sen. Marsha Blackburn voted for her even though Camper said she lobbied them heavily. Blackburn was spoofed on Saturday Night Live after asking Jackson if she could define a woman. The judge declined to get drawn in, saying she wasn’t a biologist. 

Asked about that line of questioning, Camper gave Blackburn the benefit of the doubt, saying she was caught up in the political argument about gender identity. 

No doubt, Blackburn brought Tennessee plenty of attention, turning it on herself instead of Jackson. Consequently, the SNL comedian did a heckuva Marsha, halting Southern accent and all.

“Mama told me not to come”

The full Senate passed legislation Thursday sponsored by Sen. Briggs designed to give local governments the ability to limit smoking in bars. It’s part of an effort to protect musicians, bartenders and waitresses from second-hand smoke.

Of course, Sen. Frank Niceley, a Strawberry Plains Republican who grew up on second-hand smoke, objected, saying when Japanese people and others visit Nashville they want to go to smoky bars and listen to country music. 

Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains: Japanese tourists come to Nashville for smoke-filled bars.(Photo: John Partipilo)
Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains: Japanese tourists come to Nashville for smoke-filled bars.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Shortly before the bill passed on a 20-11 vote, Briggs told Niceley he respects him for “defending the rights of the Chinese to cover here and smoke.”

Well, maybe he mixed up the nationalities, but most people got the message.

“And that cigarette you’re smokin’ ’bout to scare me half to death/ Open up the window, sucker, let me catch my breath.”

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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