In Tennessee, the majority party in the state Legislature gets control of the election commission in every county, a contrivance with no constitutional basis. Political parties are granted no constitutional powers. In fact, they are not mentioned at all in the state or federal constitutions. Efforts by the Knox County Election Commission to keep Shelley Breeding off the state ballot demonstrate how party power erodes citizenship.
Breeding lives in Karns, on a street that nudges against the border of Knox and Anderson counties. Several lots in her subdivision, including hers, are bisected by the county line. She has lived there since 2007 and has voted in the Karns precinct and served as precinct chair. Her precinct is part of the newly created 89th House District, which she wishes to represent.
Article II, Section 5a of the Tennessee Constitution says, “Each district shall be represented by a qualified voter of that district.”
When Breeding filed her petition to be a candidate, the election commission challenged her residency, claiming she is actually a resident of Anderson County, even as she was sitting on a Knox County jury. State Election Administrator Mark Goins recommended they seek a declaratory judgment from the courts. Both a chancery court and an appellate court have ruled that Breeding is an Anderson county resident and ineligible to run, forcing her to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Section 9 of the state constitution requires representatives to have lived in Tennessee three years and to be “a resident in the county he represents one year.” Section 10 applies to senators and uses the exact same language, except it says “county or district.” This difference in language is a historical artifact from a time when county borders coincided with House districts, yet it is the heart of the government’s case against Breeding. Were the government to argue that Breeding is a “she” and not a “he” and therefore ineligible, its case would be just as legitimate.
House and Senate districts may include multiple counties, parts of counties or combinations thereof. Applying the constitution’s antiquated language to modern districts could lead to absurd ends. For example, in the 36th district, which includes all of Campbell and Union counties, a Campbell voter could argue that a Union resident can not represent him because he resides in a different county than he represents.
Astonishingly, Breeding’s attorneys have not challenged the government’s conflation of county residency with district residency. Instead, the case has hinged on whether Breeding’s house is in Knox or Anderson County, though location of a dwelling is only one of several factors state law lists for defining residency.
All factors are to be considered and none is definitive, according to the law, yet Chancellor Frank Brown disregarded everything but the house’s physical location because “the decision is much easier to make than if all the factors of TCA 2-2-122(b) have to be considered.” Neglecting the law for the sake of convenience is arguably impeachable conduct.
Worse, the law mentions two circumstances where bisected property creates ambiguity, and in both cases the remedy is the same: The citizen chooses his or her home county. Neither circumstance exactly matches Breeding’s case, but both precedent and the spirit of the law point to the will and intent of the citizen as the ultimate determinant. Instead, the chancellor devised a new power for the state, the ability to dictate residency to a citizen.
Breeding’s attorneys get one last chance to make a strong argument, but regardless of the outcome, there is hope for an end to partisan affronts to civil liberty. Green Party of Tennessee v. Hargett, decided earlier this year with little fanfare, laid the groundwork for better third-party ballot access and further undoing of the constraints major parties have imposed on our democracy. In this time of rising corporate and government power, the Greens have won an important battle. Beleaguered Democrats and all citizens feeling dispossessed should take note and seek allies.