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Tennessee Supreme Court blocks decision to redraw state’s Senate redistricting maps

by Kimberlee Kruesi —

NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee’s highest court on Friday temporarily blocked a lower court’s decision that lawmakers must redraw the state’s Senate maps in a ruling that means the current legislative districts will likely remain in place for the 2024 elections.

Late last month, a panel of judges ruled that the Republican-drawn map violated the state Constitution because lawmakers incorrectly numbered the seats in left-leaning Nashville. The numbers are important because they determine the years those seats are on the ballot.

The same trial judges ruled to temporarily block the Senate map in 2022, but the Supreme Court reinstated the districts then as well, reasoning that it was too close to the election.

The Tennessee Supreme Court sided with the state in its Friday ruling. Doing so means the maps will remain in place as the appeals process plays out, which is typically a lengthy process and could easily bleed past the 2024 general elections.

Republicans celebrated the decision, including Senate Speaker Randy McNally, who has repeatedly defended the Senate map as legally sound.

“(McNally) is grateful the court recognized the clear and convincing need for a stay in this case,” said Adam Kleinheider, the speaker’s spokesperson. “He remains optimistic the state will ultimately prevail on appeal.”

The state has argued that because lawmakers reconvene on Jan. 9 and have a Jan. 31 deadline to draw a new Senate map, there’s not enough time to proceed under that timeline.

Attorneys for the plaintiff challenging the Senate map said lawmakers could begin work on a map immediately before they officially go into session. They wrote that the Supreme Court could decide the state’s appeal by the middle of January, offering a timeline to pass the maps similar to that in which lawmakers initially completed their redistricting work in late January 2022.

At issue are 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 existing redistricting plan does not do that in Davidson County, which encompasses Nashville. Instead, its districts are 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.

Court filings show that the state’s attorneys “conceded” they would not defend the Senate map in court and instead focused their attention arguing that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue.

“The courts have ruled the Senate map an illegal gerrymander,” said Brandon Puttbrese, spokesperson for the Senate Democratic caucus. “Any new ruling that allows unconstitutional maps to remain in place for another election undermines our democracy and the will of voters.”

Tennessee’s state House map was also challenged in the lawsuit, though the state did defend those boundaries.

The lawsuit has been ongoing since 2022 after three voters backed by the Tennessee Democratic Party filed a complaint seeking to challenge the maps.

The state 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.

A legal challenge against Tennessee’s redistricting maps is still pending in federal court, as well.

(Jonathan Mattise in Nashville contributed to this report.)

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