In a decision with potentially significant consequences for determining who will be the next mayor of Nashville, the Tennessee Supreme Court unanimously held yesterday that the Nashville mayoral election must be moved from August to an earlier date.
Following the resignation of Mayor Megan Barry, the Davidson County Election Commission voted to set the election to fill the vacancy on August 2, 2018, coinciding with the previously scheduled general election for countywide offices and the primary election for state and federal offices. Ludye Wallace, a candidate for the mayoral vacancy, filed a “Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Writ of Mandamus” in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, challenging the Election Commission’s decision to set the election for August 2, 2018. Wallace alleged that the election date violated Section 15.03 of the Metropolitan Charter, which requires a special election be held “whenever a vacancy shall exist for more than twelve (12) months prior to the date of the next general metropolitan election.”
The Metro Government and Election Commission filed a motion to dismiss the petition for failure to state a claim. After conducting a hearing, the trial court held that Wallace was not entitled to the relief sought and that the Election Commission did not violate the Metropolitan Charter in setting the mayoral election in August.
Wallace filed a notice of appeal on March 15, 2018 and on the same date, filed a motion with the Tennessee Supreme Court requesting that it assume jurisdiction pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated § 16-3-201(d)(1) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d) permits the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction of undecided cases when the case is “of unusual public importance” and involves, among other things, “[t]he right to hold or retain public office.” Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 48 sets out the procedure for requesting the Supreme Court to assume jurisdiction and requires the movant to include in the motion an explanation of the unusual public importance of the case. The Supreme Court granted Wallace’s motion and assumed jurisdiction over the case. Oral arguments were held April 9 and the Court rendered its decision one day later on April 10.
The Tennessee Supreme Court concluded that the Metropolitan Charter’s use of the phrase “general metropolitan election” is unambiguous and means the particular general election at which the Mayor, Vice-Mayor, Councilmen-at-Large, and District Councilmen are elected, while the term “general election” refers to any municipal general election. Accordingly, the Court held that the next “general metropolitan election” is more than twelve months from the date of the mayoral vacancy and a special election is required.
The Court ordered the Election Commission to set a special election in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated § 2-14-102(a). The Court noted in a footnote that Wallace suggested May 1, 2018 as a potential election date, but also noted that the Commission rejected that date as a potential election date and that certain deadlines for election-related actions indicated that date would be a “practical impossibility.” The matter will be remanded to the Election Commission to determine the new election date.