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Stories about Tennessee

Tennessee Supreme Court justice’s death leaves vacancy

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark passed away from cancer on Sept. 24. Her death created one vacancy on the five-member supreme court. Clark’s replacement will be Gov. Bill Lee’s (R) first nominee to the court.

Under Tennessee law, midterm vacancies on the supreme court are filled via gubernatorial appointment with legislative approval. The appointed justice must stand for retention in the next general election to remain on the bench. Upon winning the retention election, the justice serves a full eight-year term.

Clark was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2005 by Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). She was subsequently elected to full eight-year terms in 2006 and 2014. In 2010, she became the second woman in Tennessee history to serve as chief justice of the court. She served in that role until 2012.

Before her appointment to the supreme court, Clark’s career experience included working as the director of the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, as a circuit court judge in the 21st Judicial District, and as an attorney in private practice with Farris, Warfield & Kanaday (now Stites & Harbison).

Clark earned a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in 1971, a master’s degree from Harvard University in 1972, and a J.D. from Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1979.

Following Clark’s death, the Tennessee Supreme Court includes the following members:

  • Jeff Bivins, appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam (R) in 2014
  • Holly Kirby, appointed by Haslam in 2013
  • Sharon Lee, appointed by Bredesen in 2008
  • Roger A. Page, appointed by Haslam in 2016

In 2021, there have been 17 supreme court vacancies in 15 of the 29 states where replacement justices are appointed instead of elected. Sixteen of the vacancies have been caused by retirements, and one vacancy was caused by a justice’s death.

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Republican Greg Vital wins special election in Tennessee House district

A special election was held on Sept. 14 for District 29 of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Greg Vital (R) defeated DeAngelo Jelks (D) in the general election. Vital and Jelks earned 80% and 19.8% of the vote, respectively. Once sworn in, Vital will serve until November 2022.

The seat became vacant after the death of Mike Carter (R) on May 15. Carter had represented the district since 2012.

Republicans have a 73-26 majority in the Tennessee House. Tennessee has a Republican state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.

As of September, 64 state legislative special elections have been scheduled for 2021 in 21 states. Between 2011 and 2020, an average of 75 special elections took place each year. Tennessee held 11 state legislative special elections from 2011 to 2020.

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Recent state court actions suspend state-level universal school mask requirement bans in Florida and Tennessee, uphold a ban in South Carolina

As schools have begun reopening for the 2021-2022 academic year, several states have enacted policies on mask requirements in schools. As of Sept. 9, four states banned school mask requirements, seventeen states required masks in schools, and twenty-nine states left school mask decisions up to local authorities.

Recent legal actions have affected these policies in Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. In Florida, Second Circuit Court Judge John Cooper ruled on Sept. 8 that the state Department of Education could not enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) order prohibiting mask requirements without an opt-out option for parents in public schools. Cooper had ruled against DeSantis’ order on Aug. 27, but the ruling had not gone into effect as DeSantis appealed the decision. Following a Sept. 8 hearing on the status of the order pending appeal, Cooper said the government did not present a compelling case for blocking his order. The ban on enforcement will remain in effect until the First District Court of Appeals hears DeSantis’ appeal.

In Tennessee, United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Sheryl H. Lipman ruled on Sept. 3 in favor of two students who sued Gov. Bill Lee (R) after he issued an order requiring schools to allow students to opt-out of school mask mandates. Lipman ruled Lee’s order violated the students’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In South Carolina, the state Supreme Court rejected the city of Columbia’s challenge to the state’s school mask requirement ban. The court found that the mask requirement ban, which was established in an amendment to the state’s budget, was related to budgetary concerns and therefore did not violate a South Carolina rule requiring state laws address a single primary subject.

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Special election to be held in Tennessee House district

A special election is being held on Sept. 14 for District 29 of the Tennessee House of Representatives. DeAngelo Jelks (D) and Greg Vital (R) are running in the general election. The winner of the special election will serve until November 2022.

The seat became vacant after the death of Mike Carter (R) on May 15. Carter had represented the district since 2012.

Heading into the special election, Republicans have a 73-26 majority in the Tennessee House. Tennessee has a Republican state government trifecta. A trifecta exists when one political party simultaneously holds the governor’s office and majorities in both state legislative chambers.

As of September, 58 state legislative special elections have been scheduled for 2021 in 20 states. Between 2011 and 2020, an average of 75 special elections took place each year. Tennessee held 11 state legislative special elections from 2011 to 2020.

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A closer look at Tennessee’s recall laws

Tennessee statutes allow recalls in any “governmental entity having a charter provision for a petition for recall.” This delegates the decision about recalls of local officials to each municipality. If a local government’s charter allows for such recalls, then state law establishes the signature requirements and filing deadlines for conducting them. This also applies to school board members. Tennessee law says, “Any member of the board of education of the city elected or appointed…may be removed from office by the registered voters of the city.”

Tennessee also allows any county with a metropolitan form of government and more than 100,000 residents to establish its own recall procedures in its charter. One example of this is in Nashville, which has a population of 715,884, according to 2020 census data. In 1963, the governments of the city of Nashville and Davidson County merged to form the Nashville-Davidson Metro Government.

Here are three differences between Tennessee’s laws and Nashville’s charter regarding recalls:

  1. Nashville allows for the recall of any elected municipal official except during the first and last 180 days of their terms. Tennessee law prohibits recalls during the first and last 90 days of an official’s term.
  2. Nashville requires that petitioners collect signatures within 30 days of filing a notice of intention to collect signatures for a recall. Tennessee law gives petitioners 75 days to collect the required number of signatures.
  3. For recalls of school board members or city council officials elected from a district or subdivision of a city, Nashville requires that petitioners collect signatures from more than 15% of registered voters of the district from which the officer was elected. Tennessee law requires signatures from 66% of the total vote at the last regular election for that office. Both Nashville and Tennessee require petitioners to gather signatures from more than 15% of registered voters for officials elected citywide.

Ballotpedia has tracked 13 recall campaigns in Tennessee since 2009, with four of them in Nashville. Petitioners did not submit signatures for three Nashville recall efforts—one in 2012 and two efforts in 2020. In 2009, voters recalled Councilwoman Pam Murray, 542 votes to 540.

Four other states—Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire—allow local jurisdictions to set policies for the recall of municipal and school board officials.

In 2020, Ballotpedia tracked recall efforts against nine elected officials in Tennessee. California had the most officials targeted for recall—41.

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School mask requirement ban suspended in Arizona, enacted in Tennessee

As schools have begun reopening for the 2021-2022 academic year, several states have enacted policies regarding mask requirements in schools. As of Aug. 17, seven states banned school mask requirements, thirty states left school mask decisions up to local authorities, and thirteen states required masks in schools.

Recent actions were taken in Arizona, Tennessee, and Texas regarding school mask mandates. In Arizona, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner ruled on Aug. 16 that Arizona’s law banning school mask requirements could not take effect until Sept. 29. Warner said, “Under Arizona law, new laws are effective 90 days after the legislative session ends, which is Sept. 29 this year.” The legislature passed a ban on school mask requirements in the 2021 regular legislative session.

On Aug. 16, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) issued an executive order allowing parents to send their children to school without masks in K-12 public schools that enacted mask requirements. With written notification to school authorities from a parent or guardian, a student would not be required to wear masks at school, on school buses, or at school functions.

The Texas Supreme Court temporarily overturned lower court orders in Bexar and Dallas Counties on Aug. 15 that would have allowed those local governments to disregard Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) May 18 executive order prohibiting governments from requiring masks.



Davidson County court blocks July referendum to amend Nashville’s charter

On June 22, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins ruled that a petition for six charter amendments backed by 4 Good Government was invalid and blocked the amendments from appearing on the July 27 ballot. Perkins ruled that the petition included two proposed election dates, but local law requires that petitioners specify a single election date. Perkins also ruled that the amendment to revert a property tax increase would unconstitutionally transfer the power to enact property taxes from the local government to voters. Jim Roberts, leader of 4 Good Government, said that the Davidson County Elections Commission may appeal the court’s decision.

Had the petition been ruled valid, voters would have voted on six amendments to the city charter on July 27. One would have reverted the city’s property tax rates to what they were before a 34% increase in 2020 and would have required voter approval of any future increase of more than 3%. The other five amendments would have:

  1. reduced the number of signatures required to recall an elected official and prevented recalled officials from running for their previous office;
  2. ended lifetime benefits for elected officials;
  3. banned legislative alteration of voter-initiated charter amendments;
  4. required the city council to seek citizen approval before transferring high-value park or greenway real estate to private owners; and
  5. brought sports stadiums and facilities under the control of the city if their respective teams left Nashville or didn’t play at home for two years.

This is not the first time that 4 Good Government has tried to repeal last year’s tax increase. The group collected the required number of signatures for a similar petition in August 2020, but it was struck down in court on November 3, 2020.

4 Good Government started their petition targeting a 2021 election date in February and collected the required 12,142 signatures in April. The Davidson County Election Commission verified the petition in May.

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Tennessee Representative Mike Carter dies

Tennessee state Representative Mike Carter (R) died from pancreatic cancer on May 15, 2021.

Carter first won election to the 29th District on Nov. 6, 2012. He was subsequently re-elected four times, most recently in 2020. 

Governor Bill Lee (R) said in a post on Twitter, “I will miss Mike Carter who was a leader, friend and brother in Christ. Maria and I pray for the Carter family and we give thanks for his life.”

Tennessee uses special elections to fill vacancies in the legislature when 12 months or more remain in an unfilled term. However, the legislative body in the county where the vacancy occurred may also appoint an interim officeholder until the special election is held.

This is the sixth vacancy in 2021 caused by the death of a serving legislator. So far this year, there have been 48 vacancies in 28 state legislatures. Twenty-nine (29) of those vacancies have been filled.

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Tennessee legislature votes to send amendment providing for an acting governor to the 2022 ballot

On May 4, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to send a constitutional amendment to provide a process, along with a line of succession, for an acting governor when the governor is unable to perform the office’s powers and duties.

The ballot measure would allow the governor to provide a written, signed declaration saying that he or she is unable to perform the powers and duties of the office. The speaker of the Senate, who also serves as the Lieutenant Governor of Tennessee, would serve as acting governor. If the office of the speaker of the Senate is vacant, the speaker of the House would be next in line to assume the office. The acting governor would perform the duties of the office until the governor provides a written, signed declaration saying he or she is able to perform the office’s powers and duties again. The ballot measure would also allow a majority of executive department officials to determine that the governor is unable to perform his or her powers and duties, putting an acting governor in power until the governor provides a written, signed declaration saying he or she is able to perform the office’s powers and duties.

The Tennessee State Legislature can refer constitutional amendments to the ballot for gubernatorial general elections. The Tennessee Constitution requires the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment during two successive legislative sessions with an election in between. However, the constitution provides for two different vote requirements depending on the session. During the first legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a simple majority (50%+1) vote in each legislative chamber. During the second legislative session, the constitutional amendment needs to receive a two-thirds vote in each legislative chamber. In the state Senate, that amounts to 17 votes during the first session and 22 votes during the second session, assuming no vacancies. In the state House, that amounts to 50 votes during the first session and 66 votes during the second session.

During the 2019 legislative session, Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R) introduced the constitutional amendment into the legislature as Senate Joint Resolution 154 (SJR 154) on February 5, 2019. On April 18, 2019, the state Senate approved SJR 154, in a vote of 32-0, with one senator not voting. On May 2, 2019, the state House approved SJR 154, with 92 members supporting the amendment, two members opposing the amendment, and two members not voting.

The amendment was introduced as Senate Joint Resolution 10 (SJR 10) during the 2021 legislative session on January 12, 2021. The Senate passed SJR 10 on March 4, 2021, in a vote of 32-0, with one not voting. The House approved an amended version of SJR 10 on May 3, 2021, in a vote of 91-0. On May 4, the Senate concurred with the amendments in a vote of 29-0.

The amendment is one of three set to appear on the 2022 statewide ballot. Tennessee voters will also be deciding a right to work amendment and an amendment that would remove language that allows the use of slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishment.

Tennessee voters last decided on a constitutional amendment in 2014. Tennessee voters approved 100% of the 11 statewide ballot measures appearing on ballots between 1995 and 2014.