“This Case Is About Democracy:” Tennessee Court Hears Challenge to Law That Cuts Nashville Council in Half

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Tuesday, April 4, a panel of three Tennessee trial court judges held oral argument in a legal challenge to the state’s recently enacted House Bill 48. The law cuts Nashville’s Metro Council in half and requires the city to redistrict within the next month. Two lawsuits — one filed by the Metro Council and one filed by community leaders — argue that the law violates the Tennessee Constitution and request that it be temporarily blocked while it’s challenged in court. 

Who were the parties involved in today’s oral argument?

  • Metro Council: The Metro Council is the 40-member legislative body that serves the state capital of Nashville as well as the surrounding Davidson County. Under H.B. 48, the Metro Council has to reduce its size to 20 members. The Metro Council filed the first lawsuit challenging H.B. 48 and argues that the law should be temporarily blocked. 
  • Community leaders: Community leaders, who include two faith leaders, a business leader, a community advocate, a candidate for the Metro Council and current members of the Metro Council, filed the second lawsuit challenging H.B. 48. The community leaders also argue that H.B. 48 should be temporarily blocked.
  • State of Tennessee: The state includes the defendants in this case: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R), Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins (R). The state is defending H.B. 48 and argues that the law should not be temporarily blocked. 
  • Three-judge panel: Today’s argument was heard by a three-judge panel of state trial court judges. The panel is composed of one judge who ran in a Democratic primary, one who ran in a nonpartisan election and one who ran in a Republican primary. 
This Jan. 8, 2020, photo shows the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
This Jan. 8, 2020, photo shows the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

What did the Metro Council argue today?

The Metro Council argued that H.B. 48 should be temporarily blocked as it violates multiple provisions of the Tennessee Constitution and is a “radical infringement on local sovereignty.” Throughout the hearing, the Metro Council reiterated the four main arguments in its complaint (which you can read more about here.)

The Metro Council emphasized that the redistricting requirements set forth by H.B. 48 are “a lose-lose for the city” as it has to “either expend resources to draw a council map with half the current districts, which may be later overturned, or [metro] council members have to serve an unconstitutional fifth year.” The council added that the haste with which the law was enacted is notable and stated that “a quick plan is not necessarily a good plan — and that’s true here.” The Metro Council remarked that “the fact that our council fairly reflects the diverse community that exists here in Nashville is a point of pride for all of us who make our home” here and added that “[t]his is where we live. This is where we work. This is where we raise our families and make friendships. We should be the ones to decide how big this council is and how those seats are allocated. That’s what ‘home rule’ means.” 

Finally, the Metro Council addressed the state defendants’ arguments: “The state is asking [the court] to hold that the Legislature of the state of Tennessee can pass laws that concededly violate the constitution.” The Metro Council further argued that the state is asking the court to determine “that there is nothing to see here. [The Legislature] can pass unconstitutional laws because they’re presumed constitutional, and we’re just supposed to turn a blind eye, even when they concede that they conflict with the Constitution.” The Metro Council concluded that “[t]his case is about democracy and [the council members] are asking this court to protect democracy and grant an injunction in favor of Metro Nashville.” 

What did the community leaders argue today?

The community leaders’ arguments mostly focused on procedural matters. These individuals argued that they have standing — meaning, the legal authority to file a lawsuit — to bring this case. They stated that they “are pursuing the same claims as the Metro government…[The plaintiffs] are eight active, involved voters and candidates elected from across the metro geography representing the diverse community.” The community leaders cited Baker v. Carr, a U.S. Supreme Court case that established the principle of one person, one vote: “When you’re being treated in a constitutionally unjustifiable way vis-à-vis the other voters, then you have standing to bring the claim.” 

What did the state of Tennessee argue today?

Tennessee argued that H.B. 48 is constitutional and that the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring these lawsuits. In Tennessee, there are three metro governments: the Metro Nashville Council and two others that have 20 or fewer voting members and are therefore not impacted by the law as they are not big enough to qualify. Despite this, the state argued that the law should not be understood or interpreted as specifically targeting only Nashville — despite the fact that the law only applies to Nashville in reality. The state argued: “If it is potentially applicable throughout the state, it is not local in effect, even though at the time of its passage, it might have applied to only one local government.” Beyond that, the state defended the law as constitutional because “there is a legal strong presumption that enactments of the Tennessee Legislature are constitutional.” Tennessee also asserted that “the state has an interest in making sure that its laws are enforced and are not enjoined from being enforced.” The state concluded that this matter is “not a voting rights case; it’s an issue of whether the Legislature has this authority to cap council members.”

What’s next?

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judges stated that the court will issue a ruling “as soon as we are able to.”

Learn more about the case here.

Read more about H.B. 48 and the legal challenges here.

Read a Twitter thread of live Tweets here.