editorial (2006-17)

Suit to Invalidate the Charter Hurts

Litigating commissioners threaten the whole Knox government

Suit to Invalidate the Charter Hurts

The specious lawsuit brought by five term-limited county commissioners seeking to invalidate the Knox County Charter represents an uncharacteristic dereliction of duty on their part.

In a transparent attempt to cling to office, five commissioners have resorted to a claim that would cast doubt on the validity of just about every act of county government since the Charter took effect in 1990. In doing so, they have violated their oath of office, which includes a vow to defend the Charter of Knox County. That violation alone could well be grounds for their removal from office even before their terms expire in August.

Fortunately for the citizenry of the county, their throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater suit appears to have little merit. In its unanimous ruling last month that counties with a charter form of government can impose term limits on county commissioners, the state Supreme Court implicitly spurned the contention on which the suit is based.

The contention is that for a county charter to be valid it must include provision for all the county officers named in Article VII of the Tennessee Constitution including the sheriff, trustee, register of deeds, property assessor and county clerk. Only two counties, Knox and Shelby, have adopted a charter form of government, and neither of their charters provide for any of these officers except for sheriff.

In the Shelby County case that gave rise to last month’s Supreme Court decision, a lower court had invalidated Shelby County’s term limits on commissioners partly on these grounds, but mainly on the grounds that the Constitution didn’t allow for delegation to any county of the authority to set qualifications for any of the offices named in the Constitution. (Those also include a county executive or mayor and a legislative body.)

In overruling the lower court, the Supreme Court found that the state Legislature had properly delegated authority to charter counties to set qualifications for county commissioners, at least. Since the applicability of term limits to other officers wasn’t at issue in the case, the court didn’t address them. More to the point, the ruling didn’t bother to address the contention that a charter must make provision for them, strongly suggesting that the Supreme Court found no merit to it.

Yet, in a gratuitous opinion that has no legal bearing, Knox County Chancellor John Weaver earlier this month seized upon the lower court’s finding and went on to conjecture that the Knox County Charter might be invalid. Such judicial ramblings beyond the bounds of the matter being decided (as was the case here) are generally ill-advised, and Weaver’s were especially so since they sowed the seeds for the county commissioners’ suit that followed.

The five term-limited commissioners involved—Diane Jordan, David Collins, Billy Tindell, Phil Guthe, and John Griess—all have served admirably in the past. But this clouds their records. They can contend that they were merely seeking determination whether they are eligible to run for and serve another term. But that determination would have come soon enough from the state’s Coordinator of Elections Brook Thompson. His office is charged by state law with preventing any person’s name from being “placed on any ballot wherein such person is seeking to be nominated or elected to an office for which such person is ineligible.”

Immediately following the Supreme Court’s decision, Thompson instructed the Knox County Election Commission to remove the names of 12 term-limited county commissioners from the May 2 primary ballot. But a day later he backed off until after the primary because the Court’s unfortunately timed decision came after a statutory deadline for candidate removal.

Far from expediting matters, the intervening lawsuit may serve to delay a determination as it gets argued—unfortunately in Weaver’s court, where more unraveling on his part could necessitate an appeal to the Supreme Court. That, in turn, could delay the process of selecting replacement candidates for ineligible primary winners, which must be done via party conventions at least 45 days in advance of the Aug. 4 general election.

If there’s any saving grace to the lawsuit, it is that it may provide a vehicle for getting a court determination of whether Sheriff Tim Hutchison, Trustee Mike Lowe, Register of Deeds Steve Hall, County Clerk Mike Padgett and sundry clerks of courts are eligible to serve another term. The Knox County Election Commission voted last week to intervene in the case to seek such a determination. But it’s unclear whether the commission has the authority to do so. Nor has Thompson given any indication how he may proceed.

The two-term limit that voters approved overwhelmingly as a Charter amendment in 1994 applied to “any elected office of Knox County.” That shoe would seem to fit all of the above named officials. But the lack of any mention of most of these offices or their duties in the Charter leaves some room for doubt.

Hutchison insists, “I am an officer of the state, and my duties and qualifications are set by the state.” The latter part of that statement is undeniably the case, but the former part is dubious and needs to be resolved promptly, as does the status of the County Charter and the entire August ballot.