Legal Limits: Will Judicial Redistricting Get Pushed Through? How Much Will it Mess Things Up?

Unless you're a lawyer or a judge, chances are you don't think much about Tennessee's 31 judicial districts. But whether you think about them or not, whether you know the boundaries of each one or have no idea in which district you even reside, get ready to hear a lot more about them this spring: Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is pushing for a new map, and much of the legal community is not happy about it.

On Feb. 11, Ramsey sent out a memo to certain organizations in the state inviting them to submit maps of proposed new districts that address "population imbalances that have evolved over the past thirty years, as well as certain illogical features drawn (some might say ‘gerrymandered') into the plan at its inception." The deadline for the new maps was March 1, although that has since been extended to this coming Friday.

Ramsey says the need for redistricting is long overdue, and it's best to get it out of the way this year before the August 2014 general election, when the eight-year terms of district attorney generals, public defenders, and state trial court judges will be on the ballot.

"The last time our state's judicial districts were redrawn—1984—Tennessee had only five counties with 100,000 people or more. Currently, there are 12 such counties. Rural counties have become suburban counties and suburban counties now wrestle with issues similar to urban counties. Put simply, our state is a dramatically different place than it was when the last redistricting occurred. This naturally results in inefficiency and misallocation of resources. I think taking a fresh look at the judicial map could go a long way toward making sure Tennesseans receive the best possible service from their judges, district attorneys and public defenders," Ramsey writes in an e-mailed statement.

But Chancellor Daryl Fansler, the president of the Tennessee Trial Judges Association, says Ramsey's plan is seriously flawed, even though Fansler's district in Knox County wouldn't be affected by redistricting.

"It could create a two-tiered judicial system for Tennessee," Fansler says.

The biggest problem, Fansler says, is that Ramsey's memo requires any new redistricting plan to make each of the 12 counties with populations over 100,000 people their own districts. Since the memo restricts increasing the number of districts above 31, that leaves 83 counties to be divided among 19 (or fewer) districts, with just 54 judges to serve them. There could be districts with seven or eight counties apiece, stretching hundreds of miles. Judges, lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendants might now have to travel two or three hours to get to court—and court appearances might take a much longer time to get on the schedule.

"We're basically telling them, if you don't live in a big city, I'm sorry, we'll get to you when we can," Fansler says.

But that's not the only problem, according to Fansler and his colleague Judge Robert Holloway of the 22nd District in Columbia, who is the president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference. In lengthy conversations, both men point out that since the current districts have been in place for 30 years, a number of district-wide programs have sprung up within them. There are drug task forces, each organized as distinct 501(c)(3)s.

"If you start changing the counties around, you're forced to dissolve them," says Fansler. And when you dissolve them, you might lose the federal funds they've received.

There are also child-advocacy centers that span judicial districts. Swap them around, and certain children might be forced out of the long-term psychiatric care they're receiving. There are federally funded child-support enforcement officers and assistant district attorneys—Fansler says it's unclear what would happen to either the funds or the positions. And then there are the offices and buildings themselves: What happens to the security equipment? Will the state be stuck paying long-term leases for empty buildings?

"We've found that it's an impossible task to identify all these hidden costs in such a short amount of time," Fansler says.

"It creates a lot of inefficiencies. There would be a tremendous disruption in cases," Holloway adds.

Both men also note that the state Legislature commissioned a study on judicial redistricting in 2007. Conducted by the Justice Management Institute and George Mason University at a cost of around $130,000, the report, issued in 2009, found no need for redistricting at all.

"[T]he population based method is not deemed to be as reliable or valid as the weighted caseload method," the report states. "Based on these analyses, JMI believes that the weighted caseload method used by Tennessee to determine the need for judicial resources is the most appropriate, objective method for allocating resources."

Holloway says he's okay with the Legislature disregarding its own study—"They have a right to do that," he says—but he's urging the body to take its time before pushing through a new redistricting based on parameters that he says would be "fatally flawed."

"If we're going to do it, we need to do it right. Let's not rush it," Holloway says. He adds that the state should redistrict based on a study of weighted caseloads—which is how new judges are currently assigned to districts—and also taking into account the significant variation in local practice among and within districts as to where cases are heard.

Although Ramsey says if redistricting isn't done this year, it can't been done until 2022, Holloway notes that the 1984 redistricting was a mid-term redistricting, so there's no reason a new map can't be drawn up anytime after 2015.

The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference says it will submit a redistricting plan, along with a letter explaining the plan's intent, on Friday. The District Public Defenders Conference says it will do the same. However, the executive directors of both organizations declined to elaborate on what the content of the letters or maps might be.

"I'm not comfortable telling you what's in it until we submit it and the lieutenant governor has seen it," says Jeff Henry of the District Public Defenders Conference.

Once an official map is decided upon, the redistricting plan will be added to caption legislation, SB 780/HB 636, introduced by Sen. Mark Norris and Rep. Jon Lundberg. Where it goes from there, if it goes anywhere, remains to be seen.