editorial (2006-24)

Weaver’s Charter Ruling Must Be Rectified

Otherwise it should be appealed to put the people back in charge

Weaver’s Charter Ruling Must Be Rectified

Chancellor John Weaver’s outrageous ruling that the Knox County Charter is invalid should and must be rectified as promptly as possible. The adverse consequences of casting doubt on the validity of 16 years of governmental action and thwarting the will of the people are too grave to allow Weaver’s misguided pronouncement to stand.

If, as County Mayor Mike Ragsdale has suggested, rectification can be accomplished by addressing what he termed “correctable technicalities” on which Weaver based his ruling, so be it. Those center on the fact that the Charter doesn’t explicitly provide for the offices of county trustee, county clerk, register of deeds and property assessor, thus rendering it “incomplete, invalid and ineffective” in Weaver’s view.

In so ruling, Weaver thumbed his nose at or at least turned a deaf ear to the unanimous decision of the state Supreme Court in March upholding an amendment to the Shelby County Charter that set term limits for county commissioners. That decision prompted a lawsuit by five Knox County commissioners challenging the validity of its Charter as a way to void the term limits provision that would force them out of office.

In upholding the validity of an amendment to the Shelby County Charter, the Supreme Court clearly presumed that the charter itself was valid. Granted, the issue of charter validity was not explicitly before the court, but the judicial record in the case is replete with references to the Shelby County Charter including its provisions (or lack of same) for the offices that Weaver seized upon, which, along with the sheriff, are called for in the state Constitution.

The Shelby County Charter makes even less mention of those constitutional offices than does the Knox County Charter. Indeed, its only recognition of them is in a section stating that, “The duties of the county constitutional officers as prescribed by the General Assembly shall not be diminished under this charter, provided however, that such officers may be given additional duties under this charter.”

That language mirrors precisely one of the provisions of the state statute enabling counties to establish charter forms of government. (Only Shelby and Knox have done so.) Yet Weaver’s ruling flies in the face of that state law when he states that “a home rule charter can change all of [these] offices such as the offices of Sheriff, Trustee, Register, County Clerk and Assessor of Property.” Appallingly, he cites as his authority for his finding an article in the University of Dayton Law Review that deals with home rule charters in Ohio. Anyone conversant with Tennessee law knows that the very term home rule charter is a misnomer where counties are concerned, yet Weaver uses it repeatedly.

Weaver rests his conclusion primarily on a provision in the state statute authorizing county charters that stipulates: “Such charter when complete shall result in the creation and establishment of an alternate form to perform all the governmental and corporate functions previously performed by the county.” Yet, it’s anything but clear that the functions of the constitutional officers were performed by Knox County prior to adoption of the Charter by an overwhelming referendum vote in 1988.

State law contains an extensive enumeration of the duties of the trustee, register, etc.—the very duties that the charter enabling law stipulates, “shall not be diminished under a charter form of government.” As the Supreme Court stated in the Shelby County case, “We have endeavored to remain true to the established rule of statutory construction that where one reasonable interpretation would render a statute unconstitutional and another reasonable interpretation would render it valid, courts are to choose the construction which validates the statute.” The same rule applies to Knox County’s Charter, but Weaver failed to remain true to it.

The chancellor’s ruling is riddled with factual errors, fallacious assumptions and, worst of all, a failure to even give cognizance to the grave consequences of his findings. Without a valid charter, every ordinance adopted by County Commission since 1990 is cast in doubt. So is the validity of county contracts, bond issues and especially the county’s pension system. But Weaver pays no heed to any of those concerns.

Most outrageous of all are his other two technical grounds for ruling the Charter invalid. One is a failure to file a certification of the Charter with the Secretary of State. The other is a failure to publish until much later a version of the Charter incorporating the term-limits amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved by referendum in 1994. As Ragsdale aptly put it, “This would be the same as a federal judge ruling that the U.S. Constitution is invalid simply because Jefferson or Adams signed on the wrong line or that Benjamin Franklin didn’t deliver the right copy to President Washington.” Ragsdale also cited the seminal section of the state Constitution stating “that all power is inherent in the people” including “an unalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform, or abolish the government in such manner as they may think proper.” But Weaver’s ruling gave no heed whatsoever to the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the wheels of justice turn slowly. So even an expedited appeal can’t be resolved in time to avoid making a travesty of the county’s Aug. 3 election. Nine term-limited county commissioners will remain on the ballot and, if they are re-elected, the only way to remove them from office would be through a messy ouster suit that only District Attorney General Randy Nichols has standing to bring. The applicability of term limits to the constitutional officers also remains unresolved.

It’s also too late for anyone to challenge Chancellor Weaver’s bid for reelection, thus denying Knox County voters an opportunity to show him what they think of his egregious ruling.