Judges block state Senate redistricting plan, let House maps stand

Rep. John Mark Windle (D-Livingston), left, walks to look at a proposed House redistricting map on Dec. 17, 2021. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A three-judge panel has issued an injunction against Tennessee’s new state Senate maps, but allowed the House plan to stand.

The panel in a 2-1 decision enjoined Senate elections from moving forward under the original timetable, ordering lawmakers to come up with new maps to fix defects within 15 days. If they can’t meet the deadline, the court will come up with its own interim plan. The order moves the candidate filing deadline for Senate candidates from Thursday to May 5.

The lawsuit backed by the state Democratic Party argued Senate Republicans failed to meet a requirement in the state constitution that multiple districts within single counties must be consecutively numbered.

The ruling came from Nashville Chancellor Russell Perkins and Bradley County Circuit Judge J. Michael Sharp. Jackson Chancellor Steven W. Maroney dissented.

As The Tennessee Journal has previously reported:

Under the new state Senate maps, Republican Sen. Ferrell Haile’s District 18 no longer extends from its Sumner County base into the eastern sliver of Nashville. GOP mapmakers instead added about 68,000 people from the city’s diverse Antioch area to neighboring Republican Sen. Mark Pody’s District 17 in Wilson County. The changes, Democrats note, mean the four Senate districts meeting in Metro Nashville are no longer sequentially numbered (the Democratic seats are the 19th, 20th, and 21st).

The Tennessee Constitution’s language is unambiguous when it comes to the topic: “In a county having more than one senatorial district, the districts shall be numbered consecutively.” The idea behind the requirement is that since odd and even numbered districts’ four-year terms are staggered, counties shouldn’t have a disproportionate number turn over at the same time.

Republicans followed the numbering requirement in neighboring Williamson County, which became too large to accommodate Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson’s old District 23. After handing off a 32,000-person area to Sen. Joey Hensley’s District 28, Johnson’s seat was renumbered as the 27th. Similarly, Sen. Bill Powers’ District 22 in Montgomery County had 3,977 too many residents, so fellow Republican Sen. Kerry Roberts picked them up and had his district renumbered from 25 to 23.

When challenged about the disparity in the floor debate [in January], Johnson said there were previous examples of nonsequential districts when Democrats controlled the redistricting process. The Franklin Republican also warned that renumbering senators’ current districts could unconstitutionally shorten or extend their four-year terms. While other solutions are “not impossible, it’s quite impractical to meet that requirement,” Johnson said.