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After Court Fight Over Absentee Ballots, A New Proposal Would Strip Nashville Judges Of State Cases

Stephen Jerkins

Tennessee lawmakers are discussing a measure that would take many lawsuits filed against the state away from Nashville judges.

The move comes on the heels of a failed attempt to oust a judge in Nashville over her rulings to expand absentee voting because of the pandemic.

Under current law, the state government can be sued only in Davidson County court. But some Republican legislators want to let Tennesseans file suits in their county of residence, a move that would dilute the influence of the Nashville courts.

State Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, presented House Bill 1196/Senate Bill 454, earlier this week. He says he became aware of the issue when his law practice was contacted by a West Tennessee resident interested in suing the state.

“He wanted to challenge some sort of statute that he thought was unconstitutional,” Garrett says. “I got to do some research and realized that his only choice was to drive all the way to Nashville and file that lawsuit.”

The discussion also follows a campaign to remove Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle. Last year, she ordered Tennessee election officials to offer absentee ballots to anyone who feared infection from the coronavirus. The state eventually agreed to expand access to absentee voting, but her rulings still smarted.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the state’s coordinator of elections, Mark Goins, assisted the campaign to push out Lyle by drafting a five-page memo laying out his complaints over her handling of the case. Among Goins’ claims were that Lyle had made herself the state’s “de facto coordinator of elections,” at least on the issue of mail-in voting.

Practically all of the House’s Republican members signed onto the resolution calling for Lyle’s removal. But it failed in subcommittee last week following significant pushback from legal organizations, who said it amounted to an attack on the judiciary’s independence.

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons
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