A Republican-drawn map for Tennessee’s Senate seats violates the state Constitution because lawmakers incorrectly numbered the legislative districts in left-leaning Nashville, which affects which years those seats are on the ballot, a panel of judges ruled Wednesday.
The ruling centers on maps passed by the Republican-supermajority Legislature in 2022 during the once-a-decade redistricting process.
Tennessee’s constitution dictates that districts must be numbered consecutively in counties that have more than one district. The newly drawn redistricting plan does not do that in Davidson County, which encompasses Nashville. Instead, it’s numbered 17, 19, 20 and 21.
The numbering matters because the four-year Senate terms are staggered, putting some districts on the ballot in presidential election years, others in gubernatorial election cycles.
Currently, those four districts are represented by three Democrats and one Republican. There are 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats in the state Senate.
According to Wednesday’s ruling, the state’s attorneys “conceded” that they would not defend the Senate map in court and instead focused their attention arguing that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue. Tennessee’s state House map was also challenged in the lawsuit, though the state did defend those boundaries.
Ultimately, the three judges panel upheld the House map and ordered the Tennessee Senate to come up with a new district layout by Jan. 31, 2024.
A spokesman for Senate Speaker Randy McNally, a Republican who previously defended the Senate map as legally sound, did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.
“Today’s court ruling against the gerrymandered state Senate map is a clear win for the Tennessee Constitution,” said Democratic Sens. Raumesh Akbari and London Lamar in a joint statement. “Even when a political party has a supermajority in the legislature, its members must still follow the law.”
Akbari and Lamar added that they looked forward to advocating for a “fair map and transparent process” over the following weeks.
Separately, Democrats had argued that the House map also divides more counties than needed to create districts with roughly equal populations, and that it dilutes the power of minority voters. The map splits 30 counties, the maximum permitted for the state House. The Tennessee Democratic Party said Wednesday that it would continue fighting the ruling on upholding the House map.
“Our fight for a constitutional State House map is not over,” said Hendrell Remus, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, in a statement.
“Composing a constitutional map is like piecing together a complex puzzle because one may not focus on a single factor to the exclusion of other constitutional factors…The nature of constructing a puzzle whose pieces have inherent conflict means that a perfect map will never be constructed by, nor required of the General Assembly,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
Three voters filed the lawsuit in 2022, which was backed by the Tennessee Democratic Party. The state had argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue over the maps, but the panel of judges allowed the case to proceed with one plaintiff eligible to challenge the House map, and another allowed to contest the Senate map.
In April 2022, the panel of state trial-level judges blocked the Senate map from taking effect. The state appealed, and within a week, the Tennessee Supreme Court overturned that decision and let the maps stand. The justices reasoned that the lower court judges didn’t properly consider how blocking the map and extending the candidate filing deadline would harm elections officials and cause voter confusion.
A legal challenge against Tennessee’s redistricting maps is still pending in federal court, as well.
The federal lawsuit alleges that the U.S. House districts and those for the state Senate amount to unconstitutional racial gerrymandering under the 14th and 15th amendments. The challenge of the congressional map focuses on how the map split Nashville three ways, turning a Democratic seat there into a Republican pickup in 2022. The Senate challenge focuses on the boundaries in majority-Black Shelby County, including part of Memphis. A Republican represents the seat in question.
That lawsuit, however, is not scheduled to make its way to trial until April 2025.