After losing its case for photo library cards, the City of Memphis has amended its federal court lawsuit to make a direct challenge to the constitutionality of Tennessee’s new law requiring voters to present a state-issued photo identification card before they can vote.
From the Richard Locker report: An amended complaint was filed Tuesday by attorneys for the city and for two Memphis voters without state-issued ID cards whose provisional ballots in last Thursday’s election were not counted. The complaint charges that the voter photo ID requirement adds a new qualification for voting beyond the four listed in the Tennessee Constitution and is therefore an unconstitutional infringement on the right to vote under both the federal and state constitutions.
The attorneys have asked for an expedited hearing in the case, and have asked the federal court to ask the Tennessee Supreme Court whether requiring otherwise qualified voters in Tennessee to present photo IDs violates the state constitution. No hearing has been scheduled.
The direct challenge to the state’s voter photo ID law comes a week after the city and the two registered voters, Daphne Turner-Golden and Sullistine Bell, failed to persuade U.S. Dist. Judge Aleta A. Trauger to order election officials to accept new photo IDs issued by the Memphis Public Library for voting purposes.
Trauger ruled that the state legislature did not intend for photo IDs issued by local governments to qualify, and that the library itself was not an “entity” of the state.
She did, however, leave the door open to a direct constitutional challenge to the state law.
The city’s amended lawsuit argues that the Tennessee Constitution’s Article 4, Section 1, provides “the sole and exclusive qualifications for citizens and residents” of Tennessee to vote. That section provides: “Every person, being 18 years of age, being a resident of the United States, being a resident of the state for a period of time as prescribed by the General Assembly, and being duly registered in the county of residence for a period of time before the day of any election as prescribed by the General Assembly, shall be entitled to vote in all federal, state, and local elections held in the county or district in which such person resides. All such requirements shall be equal and uniform across the state, and there shall be no other qualification attached to the right of suffrage.”
However, the legal battle is likely to be over the following sentence in the same section: “The General Assembly shall have power to enact laws requiring voters to vote in the election precincts in which they may reside, and laws to secure the freedom of elections and the purity of the ballot box.”
State lawmakers walked a legislative tightrope on the municipal school district bills, trying to balance the political reality of opposition to new school districts elsewhere in Tennessee to the legal requirement that the bills must apply to more than just Shelby County.
More from the Richard Locker report: That balancing act led to the passage in April of the two bills written to allow Memphis suburbs to proceed with referendums this year on whether to create municipal school districts. But precisely where the two new laws apply, and the legislative debate that shaped them, have emerged as the central focus of the latest legal battle over new municipal districts in suburban Shelby County.
U.S. Dist. Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays indicated in a Monday status conference on the County Commission’s effort to halt the upcoming school referendums that the hearing he’ll hold Thursday will focus on the constitutionality of the two statutes enacted by the General Assembly in the closing days of the 2012 legislative session. Early voting in the Aug. 2 referendums is set to begin Friday in Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown and Millington.
The issue is whether the statutes, which were written to pave the way for the referendums and subsequent municipal school board elections to be held in 2012, apply only to Shelby County, in violation of Article 11, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution — as alleged by the County Commission’s lawsuit — or whether they could apply elsewhere in Tennessee as proponents of the new districts contend.
While Judge Mays acknowledged that halting the referendums would be a “heavy burden,” he also told the 23 lawyers assembled in his courtroom for the conference that, “It does seem a shame for a bunch of people to go out in good faith and vote and come to find out when you look at the statute, you can’t have an election because the statute is invalid. That gives me pause.”
But the same questions were a major factor in the legislature’s debate, and the main reason why it took them several weeks to pass.
Attorneys for the County Commission told the judge this week that they could provide him a DVD of the legislative debate. Lawyers challenging and defending state statutes have for decades relied on tape recordings of legislative committee hearings and floor debates to determine legislators’ intent in passing laws under court challenge.
Gov. Bill Haslam wisely waited until the day after 107th General Assembly had permanently adjourned to announce he was for the first time exercising a right granted by the state constitution to act as judge, jury and executioner of legislative acts.
Actually, the governor only rarely is assured of executioner status. But Haslam has it with the veto of a bill that would outlaw Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy.
As Haslam has noted in explaining why he didn’t veto other stuff, a gubernatorial veto can be overriden by a simple majority of the Legislature. The “all-comers” bill passed 19-12 in the Senate; 61-22 in the House.
At the federal level and in many states, a two-thirds majority is required to override, which in this case means a repeat of the original vote on an override effort would have meant sustaining the veto. Not so in Tennessee.
In a trip to Knoxville Friday, Gov. Bill Haslam announced he would allocate $500,000 in his proposed state budget for 2012-13 to the Blount Mansion Association’s capital campaign. The News Sentinel notes the first state constitution was written at the Blount Mansion. “I was thinking while I was just standing in the office where the Tennessee constitution was written that I had just left a meeting where people were arguing about adding amendments to the state constitution,” he said. “It reminds you that whether you are a governor, mayor, city council member, you do not start from scratch, it is a relay race. Your job is to do everything you can to make your city, county or state a better place.”
The home of William Blount is significant, the governor said. Blount, a North Carolina-native, signed the Declaration of Independence and was Tennessee’s first territorial governor.
“That is why the state wants to be involved in this, it matters that the state help preserve the place where it literally began,” he said.
Haslam said that when studying history, ideas are always important, but so are places.
“History becomes real when you can visit these places,” he said.
Patricia Brake Rutenberg, executive director of Blount Mansion Association, said the mansion received a matching $250,000 Saving America’s Treasure grant from the National Park Service. The Blount Mansion Association is engaged in a capital campaign to raise funds to conserve and restore the 220-year-old house
Rutenberg said $1 million, including the grant money, has been raised, but $2 million is needed to sufficiently restore the facility.
A News Sentinel editorial:
The fight over Tennessee’s controversial voter ID law has centered on its compliance with the U.S. Constitution, but the real battlefield might lie closer to home.
A judge in Madison, Wisc., recently ruled that Wisconsin’s voter ID law violated that state’s constitution. While the Wisconsin Supreme Court likely will have the final say upon appeal, observers in Tennessee should look closely at the similarities between the two states’ constitutions and gauge the ramifications of a similar ruling in the Volunteer State.
In Wisconsin’s constitution, the only classes of people barred from voting are felons and those judged by a court to be incompetent. The Legislature can enact laws to define residency, provide for registration and absentee voting, and extend the right of suffrage to other classes.
Dane County Circuit Judge Richard G. Niess ruled earlier this month that Wisconsin’s voter ID law created a new class of voters denied the right of suffrage — those without photo IDs.
Tennessee’s constitution bans only felons from exercising the right to vote. Article IV, Section 1 of the constitution establishes the qualifications for voting in Tennessee: age, U.S. citizenship, state residency and registration. The section’s first paragraph concludes that “there shall be no other qualification attached to the right of suffrage.”
If a challenge makes its way through the Tennessee courts, a ruling that Tennessee’s voter ID law adds an unconstitutional qualification for voting is not inconceivable.
A federal judge has ruled in favor of Tennessee’s Green and Constitution parties’ joint lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Nashville that claimed laws on the books violated the state constitution by making it unreasonably hard for third parties to get their names on the ballots, reports the Johnson City Press.
The decision says both the Green and Constitutional parties can have their names on Tennessee’s 2012 ballot with their candidates. It also strikes down a state law declaring that the majority party’s candidates are listed first on the ballot. “This is a great victory for voters in the state, because now we’ve made it easier for new parties to form,” said Alan Woodruff, a Johnson City attorney who announced his plans to represent the parties during a visit to the Johnson City Press last summer. “This ruling removes limitations and gives people an option. I believe in democracy and that everybody that has something to say should be on the ballot.”
(Note: The full 90-page ruling is available HERE) Woodruff, a Democrat running against U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, said that though he is affiliated with a major party, he got involved in the suit to fight for equity for all parties.
On Feb. 3, Judge William J. Haynes Jr. ruled in favor of claims by the plaintiffs and against Deputy Attorney General Janet Kleinfelter and defendants Tre Harget, secretary of state, and Mark Goins, coordinator of elections.
Both the Green and Constitution parties are recognized by state law as a “minor” parties, which, by definition means they are required to file a nominating petition with the state’s coordinator of elections. That petition must bear the signatures of a minimum of at least 2.5 percent of the total number of votes cast for gubernatorial candidates in the most recent election for governor.
Haynes wrote in his Feb. 3 order and/or judgment that he agreed with plaintiffs that that mark gives Goins leeway to raise the number at his discretion and therefore was “unconstitutionally vague, and imposes impermissible burdens on Plaintiff’s First Amendment right to associate as a political party.”
For a “minor” political party to get its name on the Tennessee ballot in 2012, more than 40,000 signatures would have to be collected by April 5. This law has not applied to the Republican and Democrat, or “major,” parties.
Haynes wrote in his opinion that the deadline was too early and unconstitutional, and that a more reasonable number of signatures for the nominating petition would be 10,000. This will need to be settled in the General Assembly.
“Any deadline in excess of 60 days prior to the August primary for the filing of petitions for recognition as a political party is unenforceable,” he wrote.
Haynes also declared that minor parties cannot be required to conduct primaries, which currently is state law. Woodruff has claimed that primaries are much too expensive, especially for smaller parties, and that nominating conventions would help relieve that burden.
The judge also enjoined the state from banning the words “independent” and “non-partisan” in a party’s name as it appears on a ballot, stating it violated the First Amendment rights of free speech.
He also said the state’s requirement that major parties be listed highest on ballots followed by minor parties and independents was unlawful, saying this is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the Forth Amendment. He also ordered the state to hold a random drawing regarding the order of party names.
He also ruled against current state law that requires signatures on nominating petitions to be accompanied by party affiliation, stating this also violated First Amendment rights to privacy and political beliefs.
(Note: The state’s attorneys can appeal the decision. Meanwhile, a “caption bill” pending in the Legislature could be amended to make changes in the current law in accord with the judge’s ruling.)
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The sponsor of a proposal to strip state courts of the power to block laws enacted by the Tennessee General Assembly quietly withdrew the bill on Monday after receiving heavy criticism from both sides of the political aisle.
Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, announced without any specific explanation she was abandoning four bills including the judicial oversight measure.
“Or speaker pro tem has been telling us we need to withdraw bills or we need to dispose of them in some way,” she in brief remarks on the Senate floor. “So I’m going to do everything I can to honor that request.”
Beavers last week told The Associated Press that the bill was aimed at reeling in what she called out-of-control courts.
“As we’ve come down through the years, they’ve used case law to rule on things and we’ve gotten farther and farther from the constitution,” she said. “The courts have taken on a whole new supremacy, where they’re making the policy instead of the legislative bodies making the policy.”
That approach was disputed by several Senate colleagues, including by Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who said that even though he often disagrees with judicial decision, Beavers’ proposal would go too far.
“That is crossing the line on separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches,” he said. “Because we make the law and they interpret the law. If you don’t like what they’re coming down with, then you do everything you can to change the court.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Opponents of a proposed constitutional amendment to ban an income tax in Tennessee say it’s unnecessary and politically motivated.
The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Franklin was approved 73-17 on Thursday. The companion legislation passed the Senate last year, and Republican Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville said he plans to bring it up at the beginning of the next General Assembly.
The proposal must now be approved by a two-thirds vote in each chamber of the next Legislature before it’s placed on the ballot in 2014.
(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel..)
The old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” could be wisely applied to the vast majority of Tennessee’s aging state constitution. There are now 41 resolutions that propose fixes officially awaiting consideration of the 107th General Assembly when it returns in January.
One proposed amendment, promoted by anti-abortion activists, was given legislative approval earlier this year after years of effort and will go before the voters in a 2014 referendum.
Like the amendment or not, the proposal known as SJR127 does provide an example of something that was reasonably perceived as broken being fixed. The breakage occurred, from the standpoint of the activists, with a 2000 state Supreme Court decision interpreting the state constitution to provide a strong right to an abortion, though the subject is not mentioned within the venerable document.
Some of the other pending proposals have no such foundation. They are pure political pandering and/or posturing.
One example is the most-discussed of the pending proposals, namely a measure to prohibit a state income tax. In this matter, state courts have consistently ruled that a state income tax is already prohibited. So it ain’t broke.
Yes, there have been attorneys general opinions stating that, with carefully structured language, an income tax could conceivably be fashioned to win the approval of the state Supreme Court.
That, of course, would require a majority of the state Legislature eager to enact a state income tax and a court willing to ignore precedents. Both, frankly, are inconceivable given the current state of state affairs.
Article VI, Section 3 of Tennessee’s state constitution has received a fair amount of attention in the Legislature during recent years. A lot of other provisions in the venerable and debatable document have not.
The much-noted sentence says, “The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of this state.” The key word for discussion is “elected.”
By the standard doubtless understood in 1870, the date of the most recent wholesale rewriting of our constitution, elected would likely mean having candidates for Supreme Court justice run against one another with the winner taking office.
They do not so compete, of course. The Legislature has provided instead that Supreme Court judges are appointed by the governor from a list of nominees submitted by a commission. Voters only get to choose “yes or no” on whether the governor’s appointees get a new term after the appointment expires.