Opinion » Editorial

Tennessee Legislature Trumps Cities’ Laws, Again


As has been amply demonstrated in the Tennessee General Assembly, Memphis is often on the short end of the stick when it comes to legislative actions. One recent case in point, covered in "Politics" this week (p. 8), was the action of both state Senate and state House in rejecting the city's right to prescribe alternative penalties for the possession of modest amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

In this case, Memphis was not alone in getting the back of the hand from the legislature. The city councils of Nashville and Memphis had passed ordinances allowing their local law-enforcement arms to exercise discretion by way of citing first-time offenders with tickets and modest fines as an alternative to misdemeanor arrests carrying punishments of up to a year in jail.


To some extent, the legislative rebukes reflected a party-line reaction by the Republican super-majority that controls both chambers of the General Assembly. In a sense, both Memphis and Nashville are isolated Democratic enclaves, blue islands in a red sea.

To some extent also, both cities share a cultural matrix toward which the rest of the state is unsympathetic. That fact loomed large a few years ago when the legislature struck down a Nashville ordinance prohibiting hiring and contracting discrimination by local government on the basis of sexual orientation. The legislature's action nipped in the bud similar action then pending in the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission.

In this instance, too, the guiding principle stated by proponents of the restrictive legislation was that state law overrides local law, and that general claim has been stoutly defended by former Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, among others, against charges of being inconsistent with a parallel insistence on states' rights in national affairs. The retort by Ramsey and by current spokespersons for the Assembly's GOP super-majority is that cities and counties within state lines and the federal union itself were brought into being originally by the states. Hence, the doctrine of state government über alles, which is the governing doctrine of the General Assembly at present.

An even more flagrant example of the principle looms in pending legislative action — sponsored, ironically, by a Shelby Countian, state Senator Brian Kelsey — that would impose the constitutionally dubious expedient of taxpayer-funded private-school vouchers on Shelby County alone. The bill, styled as a "pilot program," is further limited so that its potential financial drain would apply only to existing funding for Shelby County Schools.

Kelsey's bill advanced through a House education committee last week, despite drawing protests and nay votes from local House members from both parties.

In the long run, such imposition of state authority on matters of clearly local provenance deserve full testing by the courts. In the short run, they merit the stoutest resistance possible.

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