appeal

State Supreme Court agrees to hear appeal over school voucher law

Gov. Bill Lee delivers his first State of the State address in Nashville on March 4, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

The State Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear an appeal of lower court rulings that Gov. Bill Lee’s signature school voucher to be unconstitutional.

Nashville Chancellor Anne Martin ruled in May that the law violated home rule provisions of the Tennessee Constitution by applying to only Nashville and Shelby County school districts without seeking support from either voters or local legislative bodies. The state sought a direct appeal to the Supreme Court but the justices declined to bypass the intermediate Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld Martin’s original ruling.

Attorneys for Nashville and Shelby County governments argued the Supreme Court shouldn’t take up the appeal because the defendants hadn’t brought new arguments about the case. The state maintains home rule protections shouldn’t apply because school boards are separate from the operations of county governments.

The Supreme Court case will be closely watched as home rule disputes are only expected to multiply as rural-urban tensions largely match the partisan divide in the state.

Here’s a primer on the history of the home rule amendment from The Tennessee Journal in May 2020:

The subject of extending greater home rule powers was the subject of the greatest debate at a 1953 constitutional convention, but opposition failed to materialize at the ballot box as the change was approved with over 70% of the vote. The overwhelming approval reflected a sentiment summed up in an editorial in the Knoxville News Sentinel at the time that the change was needed to “make it tough on city charter meddlers in Nashville.”

State Supreme Court Justice A.B. Neil told the delegates to the constitutional convention the home rule question would be key to their deliberations. The General Assembly had handed down “too much unwise local legislation” over the years, the justice said, adding that many of those acts had “no merit other than to serve the basest ends in partisan politics.”

In a historical twist, the president of the 1953 constitutional convention was Prentice Cooper, a former governor who opposed the home rule amendment. Cooper, who died in 1969, was the father of Nashville Mayor John Cooper, who has led the charge to dismantle the voucher law on the basis of home rule violations.