By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Former state Sen. Rosalind Kurita on Thursday lost a federal appeal of her ouster as the Democratic nominee in her 2008 bid for re-election to the Tennessee General Assembly.
In a brief ruling, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge’s refusal to reinstate Kurita to the ballot after Democratic officials declared her 19-vote primary win as “incurably uncertain.”
The legal team for Kurita’s primary opponent and successor, Clarksville attorney Tim Barnes, argued that there had been heavy Republican crossover voting and alleged that poll workers directed his supporters to vote in the wrong primary.
Democrats were angry with Kurita after casting a key vote in favor of Sen. Ron Ramsey in the Republican’s 2007 election as Senate speaker. Ramsey had subsequently named Kurita as Senate speaker pro tempore, the ceremonial No. 2 position in the upper chamber.
Barnes’ attorney Douglas Johnston said during a Democratic Party hearing that the crossover voters “were doing the bidding of the Republican lieutenant governor whom Rosalind Kurita put into power.”
Kurita, who is now a health policy adviser in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment on the ruling. She made an unsuccessful bid as a write-in candidate against Barnes in 2008.
Her attorney argued before the judges in January that Kurita had a “property right” to appear on the general election ballot by virtue of having won the primary.
Even though Barnes’ four-year term ends in November, Kurita wanted the panel to order a special election to give her a chance to serve out the rest of the year and seek re-election.
Tennessee Assistant Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter said at the hearing that because the primary is a party function and not a state election, courts generally cannot get involved in disputes over who is on the ballot as the nominee.
Chief Circuit Judge Alice M. Batchelder wrote in the three-page opinion Thursday that the lower court decision “correctly applies that law to the facts in the record.” Because the three-judge panel saw no reason to add or elaborate to the ruling, “the issuance of a full written opinion by this court would serve no useful purpose,” according to the opinion.
Tennessee voters aren’t registered by party and voters often participate in different primaries depending on campaign developments. The law allows for challenges of people who are “not a bona fide member of political party,” though that status is not clearly defined.
Vast Republican gains in both the House and Senate since 2008 have led some in that party to call for closed primaries in Tennessee. Ramsey said after his unsuccessful bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 that he’d support that change to keep Democrats from “rigging the election.”
But Haslam and other Republican leaders have called for maintaining the current system, and the state GOP’s executive committee last year rejected making closed primaries part of the official party platform. Any change would have to be enacted by the state Legislature.
Barnes faces Republican Mark Green, a former Army physician, in November’s election. Republican Party spokesman Adam Nickas said in an email that the election provides a chance to “right this wrong.”
“It’s unfortunate that a desire for retaliation would overturn a certified election that was clearly won by Rosalind Kurita,” he said.