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Judges block Tennessee move to cut Nashville council in half

Apr 10, 2023, 4:49 PM

FILE - The Nashville, Tenn., skyline is shown July 11, 2022. Nashville officials on Monday, March 1...

FILE - The Nashville, Tenn., skyline is shown July 11, 2022. Nashville officials on Monday, March 13, 2023, sued over a new Tennessee law that will cut the Democratic-leaning city's metro council in half, a move that follows the council’s rejection of efforts to host the 2024 Republican National Convention in Music City. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Democratic-leaning city of Nashville’s Metropolitan Council will get to keep all 40 of its seats for now, under a temporary decision issued Monday by three state judges. The ruling stymies an effort by state Republican lawmakers to cut the council in half after it blocked the the 2024 Republican National Convention from coming to the Music City.

Nashville has operated under a combined city-county government system with 40 council members since 1963, when leaders were wrestling with consolidating the city and surrounding county as advocates worked to ensure Black leaders maintained strong representation there.

The new statute at issue would require Nashville to craft new council districts by May 1, a deadline city officials say is unreasonable.

Three state court trial judges — one from Nashville, one from Shelby County and one in Athens, Tennessee — agreed, saying there is a “compelling public interest in preserving the integrity of the Metro election process that is already underway.”

Nashville government officials who filed the lawsuit have argued that changing the council’s makeup now will throw this year’s elections into chaos, in part because it would require redrawing district boundaries after more than 40 candidates have launched campaigns.

Monday’s ruling blocked the requirement pending the lawsuit’s outcome.

“The Court finds the implementation of the Act and its reduction provisions at this late date results in upheaval of the election process, risks voter confusion, and potentially comprises the integrity of Davidson County’s August 3, 2023 general election,” the judges wrote.

Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti’s office is defending the state against the lawsuit. His spokesperson, Elizabeth Lane, said the office is still reviewing the decision.

Wally Dietz, the law director for Nashville’s city-county government, which is seeking to overturn the new law, said in a statement that Nashville officials are “grateful that the court issued an injunction based on its unanimous finding that Metro is likely to succeed on our claim that the Legislature violated the Constitution by changing the rules for Metro alone in the middle of an election.”

The state law, which only applies to city or city-county governments, would cut Nashville’s combined council to 20 people. No other Tennessee city or city-county government has more than that.

If a metro government can’t make the changes in time for the next election, current members’ terms are supposed to be extended for one year to accommodate the changes, and the next four-year term would be reduced to three. The election cycle would then return to once every four years.

City officials have said the scheme violates the state Constitution.

A quarter of Nashville’s council seats are held by Black members, half by women and five members who identify as LGBTQ+.

Tennessee’s GOP-dominant Statehouse passed the law halving the number of seats earlier this year, one of many proposals Republicans have introduced to upend Nashville politics.

One bill would have renamed a portion of Nashville Rep. John Lewis Way to Trump Boulevard. That legislation has since been spiked for the year. Another measure would reconfigure police oversight boards in Tennessee and a third would block cities from using public funds to reimburse employees who travel out of state to get an abortion. Tennessee’s abortion ban is one of the strictest in the nation. Some narrow exceptions are awaiting the governor’s signature.

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Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.

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Judges block Tennessee move to cut Nashville council in half