NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A three-judge panel will be deciding whether to grant a temporary injunction against state leaders on a motion filed by Metro Nashville and others over a new law that has gone into effect that would force the city to halve the council size from 40 to 20 members.
The hearing began at 9 a.m. in Davidson County Chancery Court Tuesday with Chancellor Pat Moskal, Chancellor Jerri Bryant and Judge Mary Wagner presiding.
The hearing stems from the lawsuit filed last month by Metro Nashville against Gov. Bill Lee, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins. The suit alleges state leaders have conducted “unconstitutional legislative overreach” of local governance with the passage of Senate Bill 87/House Bill 48.
The bill was hurdled through the legislature this term, passing along party lines, and signed by Gov. Bill Lee within an hour of receiving it from the Senate, the quickest turnaround for any legislation this year.
In the documents obtained by News 2, Metro Nashville Director of Law Wally Dietz said Metro Nashville is a “not simply an instrumentality of the State,” as some lawmakers implied it is during floor debates and in committee hearings. The “Metro Council Reduction Act,” as it is called in court documents, violates numerous provisions of the Tennessee Constitution, including the “Home Rule Amendment” and provisions outlining the four-year terms of Metro Councilmembers.
Further, Metro argued in court, the “arbitrary” timeline imposed by the legislation—upon receiving the governor’s signature, Metro had a 30-day window in which to redraw its district lines; it was also required to submit new maps to the Metro Planning Commission by May 1—only “creates confusion and chaos among citizens and candidates” and “ignores numerous other constitutional prohibitions.”
Metro is asking the Chancery Court for judgment and an order declaring the Metro Council Reduction Act “facially unconstitutional” under both the Consolidation Clause and the Local Legislation Clause in Article XI, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution as well as under Article VII, Section 1 of the Tennessee Constitution, and that the Aug. 3, 2023 Metro Nashville election “proceed as planned before the Metro Council Reduction Act’s passage.”
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News 2 reached out to the governor’s office who said it “could not comment on pending litigation.” News 2 also reached out to the offices of Secretary Hargett and Elections Coordinator Goins for comment. As of original publication, we have not heard back.
In court, Metro Director of Law Wally Dietz and Associate Director of Law Allison Bussell argued that the law was an “assault on the very core of the Metropolitan Government itself” and that Metro Nashville voters should be the ones to decide if the council should be reduced or not, not the legislature in its “radical infringement on local sovereignty.”
“There is no stated or even discernible good faith reason why the general assembly would impose these drastic measures on a local legislature that has existed for 60 years if the primary intent of the bill was merely to set a cap,” Bussell said.
Metro relied heavily on the state constitution’s “Home Rule Amendment,” which states that laws that are “local in form or effect” and would only apply to one particular city are unconstitutional unless certain circumstances are met. Metro’s argument was that while the law is written somewhat broadly, it truly would only apply to Metro Nashville.
“We should be the ones to decide how big this council is and how those seats are allocated,” Dietz said. “That’s what Home Rule means. The impossible timetable in this act is already causing irreparable harm and damage to the public interest.”
“We have established that this legislative act is fatally flawed based on several provisions of the Tennessee Constitution,” Dietz said.
The state countered that the law doesn’t only apply to Metro Nashville, as it contains a provision that also applies to municipalities across the state, but that Metro has “specific applicability” due to it currently being the only metropolitan government without a 20-member council currently.
Represented by Timothy Simonds, the state further argued the case favors the state, as legislative acts in Tennessee are presumed constitutional, so the court granting an injunction against the law would disrupt the state’s interest of defending its laws.
In rebuttals, Bussell contended that the breadth of the law Simonds referred to wasn’t accurate because the section of the law that applies to other municipalities lacks the same timeframe mechanism that applies to Metro Nashville.
“Everybody knows this only applies to Metro Nashville,” she said.
She further contended the state’s argument was essentially that the legislature should be able to enact this unconstitutional law “because they want to,” rather than for any particular interest.
An attorney representing the individual plaintiffs, Scott Tift, argued the law would deprive voters of their right to vote for their Metro Councilor in the August election if Metro could not meet the May 1 deadline of approving new districts, which Bussell said had already caused “chaos” among Nashvillians. Tift argued that the state constitution outlined that Metro Councilors “shall” serve four-year terms, with “shall” offering no legal wiggle room for an extended term or a reduced term as outlined in the law.
“What can be more harmful than an unconstitutional government existing or a year or longer?” he asked the Court.
Simonds argued, however, that the case really came down to whether or not the legislature had the authority to enact its own caps on local governments.
Jonathan Shirley with the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, added that there was no indication any voter would be denied the right to vote based on the law, which Tift resisted, saying if individuals had no standing as plaintiffs, the state would essentially be arguing that no one could ever challenge a law and “take the courts out of the equation.”
He added that the state would, in essence, be asking the Court to nullify one part of the Tennessee Constitution by declaring his clients had no standing.
Chancellor Pat Moskal concluded the hearing by saying she and the panel would take all arguments under advisement and issue a ruling “as soon as we are able.”
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This is a developing story. WKRN News 2 will continue to update this article as new information becomes available.