In a decision that may raise
new complications, even as it resolved old ones, the state Supreme Court
Wednesday affirmed the validity of a 1994 Shelby County referendum limiting the
county's mayor and board of commissioners to two four-year terms.
The decision, reached unanimously by the five Supreme Court justices, means that three commissioners who two years ago filed a suit to overturn the term-limits provision may not run for reelection this year, having been elected to two terms already since the time of the referendum. Two of the three - Walter Bailey and Cleo Kirk - had been listed on the Democratic primary ballot, while the third, Julian Bolton, had indicated that he might run instead for the open 9th District congressional seat.
It was not immediately clear whether the state's anti-skulduggery law, which allows for re-opening filing deadlines under some late-withdrawal circumstances, might apply. The situation regarding Bailey's District 2, Position 1 seat is further clouded by the possibility that another Democratic primary candidate for the seat, J.W Gibson, may be purged from the ballot by party officials reacting to his activity in Republican Party circles over the last 10 years.
In any case, Bailey and Kirk have now definitively been ruled ineligible for reelection. The Court's decision in effect let stand an earlier Chancery Court decision affirming the term-limits provision and dissolved a stay granted to the plaintiffs by the state Court of Appeals. In its decision, however, the high Court said it had acted "de novo" (from fresh examination) in making its own affirmation of the term limits provision.
The high Court found, as Chancellor Tene Alissandratos had earlier, that the provision of the county charter imposing the two-term limit was authorized by Tennessee Code Annotated section 5-1-201(4). The Court also ruled that the charter provision was the result of a lawful delegation of the legislature's power to establish qualifications for elected county officers and was therefore not in violation of Article VII of Tennessee's constitution.
Noting that the 1994 referendum "was approved by over 80% of the voter of Shelby County," the Court took futher note of the plaintiffs' allegation that the referendum had been "ill-advised" but dismissed it on the ground that, whether ill-advised or not, such a vote "does not rise to the level of a constitutional defect."
Simply put, the Court ruled that both state law and the Tennessee Consitution grant that a chartered county government like Shelby County's is empowered to provide for the "size, method of election, qualification for holding office, method of removal, and procedures of the county legislative body." And it adjuged the 1994 referendum as permissibly within the county's discretion.
Said the justices: "The constitution is the truest expression of the will of the people, and it is their intent in adopting a constitutional provision that must prevail."
The Court's ruling stated explicitly: "There is nothing in the language of the constitution to prevent a county from placing a limit on the number of terms that may be served." Of the 1977 state Constitutional Convention that codified relevant law in its present form, the justices noted, "If the delegates had wanted to prohibit term limits as the plaintiffs contend, the delegates could have easily added language to that effect."
Quoting the state Constitution the Supreme Court opinion said that the "General Assembly has very broad powers and discretion," that the 1994 Shelby County referendum was the result of a proper delegation of those powers and that discretion, and that the Constitution granted "broad authority to a county to go so far as to replace its existing government in favor of an alternate government, provided the people approve."
Finally, the Court's decision, written by Chief Justice William M. Barker, said, "This opinion is not subject to rehearing under Rule 39 of the Tennessee Rules of Appellate Procedure, and the Clerk is directed to immediately issue the mandate. Costs are taxed to the plaintiffs...."
Download a .pdf of the complete court ruling here