Judge dismisses Washington County redistricting lawsuit

Zach Vance • Updated Sep 25, 2017 at 7:00 PM

Washington County’s redistricting plan will go into effect next year after all. 

On Monday, Chancery Court Judge Beth Boniface dismissed Gray resident Dr. John Daniel’s lawsuit seeking to halt the implementation of the redistricting plan, which will reduce the size of the Washington County Commission from 25 members to 15 after August 2018 election.

Since that plan used seven-year-old data to form new districts, and Washington County’s population has most certainly changed since the last census, Daniel claimed the new plan violated state law and the Tennessee Constitution because it deprived residents of their rights to “one man, one vote.” 

Boniface based her decision on T.C.A. § 5-1-111(c), which she said clearly states a county legislative body can reapportion any time it deems necessary to maintain substantially equal representation based on population. 

The state legislature essentially gave local governing bodies power to reapportion any time “it deems such action necessary” to maintain substantially equal representation based on population, but the county’s attorney argued the reasoning for deeming it necessary does not require proof. 

Boniface wrote, “(Daniel) argues that once the county has an approved plan, the county may not redistrict before the next Federal Census. This interpretation would effectively negate any purpose for T.C.A. § 5-1-111(c) and restrict the intended scope of the statute.”

During a Sept. 14 hearing in Sneedville, Boniface directly asked County Attorney Tom Seeley multiple times what the county’s reasoning for redistricting was, but Seeley cautiously avoided the question by citing the County Commission only needed to “deem it necessary,” which it did through a January 2016 resolution. 

In a statement to the Johnson City Press, Seeley said he was pleased with Boniface’s ruling that Daniel’s allegations lacked proof the county violated state law. 

“Judge Boniface has ruled that Washington County complied with both state and federal law in adopting its Reapportionment Plan and that Dr. Daniel failed to offer any evidence to the contrary,” Seeley said. “Judge Boniface also confirmed that the County Commission’s adoption of the Plan, which reduced the population deviation from 9.9 percent to 2.39 percent and placed one commissioner in each district, increased the political voice of each citizen in Washington County and better approached the ideal of ‘one person, one vote.’ ” 

Seeley also said the ruling made clear there was no evidence to Daniel’s allegations rural or minority voters were negatively impacted by the reapportionment plan. 

With county commissioners in Tennessee essentially able to redraw district lines anytime it has majority approval, Daniel said Monday he plans to continue advocating for stricter redistricting laws. 

As an example, Daniel claims a new federal census is required to receive litter grants, but according to the ruling, not required for redrawing commission, school board and other local offices’ geographic boundaries.

“With no findings and just the commission passing a resolution and ‘deeming’ it necessary, lines for commissioners, school boards and constables can be drawn at will. This ruling will be in effect across the state,” Daniel said in a statement. 

Moving forward, Daniel said he plans to discuss the matter with local lawmakers, District Attorney General Tony Clark and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery. 

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