Court finds Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance guilty of contempt

By: - April 19, 2022 12:32 pm
(Photo: John Partipilo)

(Photo: John Partipilo)

A judge on Monday deemed the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance guilty of “willfully” violating a court order barring the collection of registration fees from nonpartisan political action committees.

Senior Judge Thomas J. Wright ruled the state agency defied his injunction—issued in 2018 and upheld by the Tennessee Court of Appeals a year later—against collecting fees under a law the judge and the appellate court concluded was unconstitutional.

“The injunction at issue is clear and unambiguous … simple and straightforward,” Wright wrote in a ruling made public Monday. “(The agency) made a conscious decision to enforce the statute. A conscious choice is a deliberate action. A deliberate action is willful.”

Wright is ordering the state agency to refund the $64,000 in registration fees collected in violation of his injunction and is threatening “coercive fines” if the agency fails to do so within 15 days.

The contempt ruling comes after a nonpartisan political action committee—Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws—successfully challenged the constitutionality of a state law that required nonpartisan PACs pay a $100 registration fee but spared partisan PACs from doing so.

Wright ruled in 2018 that the law was unconstitutional because it did not equally apply to all PACs and instead favored PACs funded by political parties. As part of that ruling, he ordered the state agency to stop collecting the fee.

The Tennessee Legislature, in turn, sought to fix the law by amending it to include partisan PACs, but the Court of Appeals opined in 2019 that the Legislature’s amendment fell short because it still spared “single candidate” and “single issue” PACs from paying the same fee.

The campaign finance agency honored Wright’s injunction for more than two years but changed course in January 2021 “apparently after some discussion with the Tennessee Attorney General’s office,” according to Wright’s contempt order.

Attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws along with lawyers Jamie Hollin and Lindsay Smith, lauded Wright’s ruling in a Monday news release.

“Court orders are not voluntary — even for the state officials who wrongly believe themselves to be above the law,” Horwitz said.

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.