Redistricting lawsuit tests judicial philosophy on Tenn. Supreme Court

State Attorney General Herbert Slatery, right, speaks with Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) on the House floor in Nashville on Feb. 3, 2020. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

When the applicants for a recent state Supreme Court vacancy were being interviewed, most went out of their way to declare a dedication textualism — the judicial philosophy focusing on the words as written in law books or the constitution rather than the intent behind why they were drafted that way.

The state’s highest court has agreed to take on state’s challenge of a recent ruling throwing out new state Senate maps because lawmakers ignored a provision in Tennessee Constitution that multiple districts within a single county must be consecutively numbered. Under the plan passed in January, Nashville would be home to districts 17, 19, 20, and 21 — meaning three of four seats would come up for election in the same year.

Here is what the Tennessee Constitution says on the matter:

In a county having more than one senatorial district, the districts shall be numbered consecutively.

A three-judge panel made up of two Republicans and one Democrat determined that while state Attorney General Hebert Slatery’s office had made a “detailed and nuanced” argument for why lawmakers had arrived at the House maps, the record did not include a sufficient explanation for why federal law or the U.S. Constitution “mandated the non-sequential numbering” of Senate districts.

Slatery’s office in a legal response to the lawsuit backed by the state Democratic Party argued the case should be thrown out for the plaintiff’s lack of standing, the absence of harm to voters, and because opponents had taken too long sue.

“The consecutive numbering of senatorial districts is solely an administrative distinction,” according to the state.

Supporters also argued past failures to consecutively number districts had gone unchallenged, though the historical record suggests otherwise.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to skip the intermediate Court of the Appeals and take up the case directly. Plaintiffs have until 1 p.m. Central on Monday to file their response the government’s motions to overturn the ruling and to lift an injunction on implementing the new maps while the challenge is underway.

UPDATE 1: The court’s newest justice is former associate solicitor general Sarah Campbell. She said during confirmation hearings she would recuse herself from cases involving legal matters she had personally bee involved in while at the AG’s office. A courts spokeswoman says Campbell did not participate in the legal advice given to Republican lawmakers during the redistricting debate.

Campbell previously recused herself from an appeal of the state’s school voucher law and by a man seeking consideration of early release from his life sentence for first-degree murder when he was 16 years old.

UPDATE 2: Plaintiffs have filed their motions. Here’s an excerpt:

In setting out the supposed parade of horribles that will flow from the injunction and touting the State’s compelling interest in the integrity of its election process, not once do Defendants acknowledge the bedrock requirement that the General Assembly must comply with the Tennessee
Constitution in enacting its voting district maps. This is a striking omission. Indeed, the State’s compelling interest in its election process is rendered meaningless if the State can run roughshod over the Constitution simply because fixing the problem is not convenient.