Attorneys on behalf of former DeKalb County Election Administrator Lisa Peterson have filed a civil action in federal court against the Republicans on the local election commission who voted Peterson out of the job on April, 24th and voted in Dennis Stanley, a Republican.
The suit names as defendants, James Dean, Walteen Parker, and Barbara Vanatta, acting under color of state law and in their official capacity as members of the DeKalb County Election Commission, and individually.
In addition to Peterson, the attorneys, W. Gary Blackburn and John Ray Clemmons of Blackburn & McCune, PPLC in Nashville are representing seven other current and former county administrators in Tennessee, naming as defendants, Republican Party appointees to the county election commissions in Cannon, Henry, Loudon, Putnam, Rhea, Rutherford, and Weakley counties, along with DeKalb County.
Peterson, who had been election administrator for DeKalb County since 1998, also has a lawsuit pending in DeKalb County Chancery Court, claiming the local Republican controlled election commission violated the Open Meetings Act, State law, and the Constitution of the State of Tennessee "by a majority of its members' meeting, communicating, and deliberating in private, secretly decided and agreeing to terminate Ms. Peterson's employment, and secretly deciding and agreeing to appoint a Republican to the position of administrator of elections prior to the April 24th, 2009 public meeting of the commission."
In a prepared news release, Blackburn says ‘The civil action (in federal court) seeks to redress the politically motivated and unconstitutional actions of the Republican county election commissioners, who, at the apparent instruction of state and county Republican Party officials, terminated or threatened to terminate highly qualified and experienced administrators of elections across the state of Tennessee."
"It is irresponsible to threaten the facilitation of free and fair elections by using a political test to terminate highly qualified and experienced public servants who are responsible for protecting the very essence of our democracy. The Republican Party and its officials' politically motivated attempts to simultaneously replace administrators of elections across this state from a position which requires a great deal of institutional knowledge and understanding of the law is adverse to the very ideals on which our republic was founded. Tennesseans, like all Americans, expect and deserve to vote in well organized and legal elections and have their voice counted by someone who values democracy more than party politics."
The lawsuit alleges the rights of Peterson and the other former county administrators were violated under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article One of the Constitution of the State of Tennessee, namely the right to exercise freedom of speech and equal protection under the law.
Peterson and the other plaintiff's are asking the federal court to declare that the defendants have violated their constitutional rights; that the defendants acts are unconstitutional; and to declare that the administrators of elections are county officials or employees, rather than state employees.
Peterson and the other plaintiffs are asking the court to order their reinstatement to the position each held at the time of their termination, or in the alternative, order that they receive front pay for a reasonable amount of time. They want full back pay and a judgment for compensatory damages and punitive damages against the defendants jointly and severally in each county, in their official capacity as members of their respective county election commissions, and individually with prejudgment interest. The Plaintiffs are further seeking an award for reasonable attorneys fees, costs, and expenses of this action, along with any other such relief the court deems equitable and appropriate.
The lawsuit alleges that "On December 20th, 2008, Debra Young Maggart, State House Republican Caucus Whip and member of the Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee, published a memo to elected Republican members of the Tennessee legislature setting forth a requirement that an individual be a "bona fide Republican" for appointment to positions such as election commissions."
"Unlike the state election commission and the county election commissions, a political test may not be the basis for termination of an individual employed as administrator of elections, because the office is protected by article 1, section 4 of the Constitution of the State of Tennessee which states as follows: That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State."
"Upon information and belief, prior to each defendant's appointment as a county election commissioner, defendants met with members and officials of the state and county Republican Party and certain elected Republican members of the state legislature and committed, as a condition of their appointment, to terminate Plaintiff's employment and appoint a member or supporter of the Republican Party to replace Plaintiffs."
"Defendants' acts of meeting with and promising state and county Republican Party officials to vote to terminate their respective county election commission constitutes a conspiracy to terminate Plaintiffs solely because of their actual or perceived political party affiliation."
"Upon each Defendant's appointment to a county election commission by the state election commission, each individual swore to and filed an oath of office, as required by (state law). The oath states, in part, that each county election commission swears or affirms to support the Constitution and laws of the State of Tennessee...faithfully and impartially discharge the duties of (their) office."
"When each Defendant swore or affirmed his or her oath, he or she acted with full knowledge of swearing falsely, because he or she had already vowed to officials of the state and county Republican Party and certain elected Republican members of the state legislature to violate the Constitution and laws of the State of Tennessee and not to act impartially."
"Upon information and belief, prior to public meetings of each county election commission, Defendants in each county met in private and communicated, deliberated, and agreed to vote to terminate Plaintiff's employment and elect a specific individual who is a member or supporter of the Republican Party to the position of administrator of elections."
"Defendants' acts of meeting, deliberating, and agreeing to terminate Plaintiffs constitute a conspiracy to terminate Plaintiffs solely because of their actual or perceived political party affiliation."
According to the lawsuit, "Prior to public meetings of the DeKalb County Election Commission, Defendant Walteen Parker communicated directly to Plaintiff Ms. Peterson on multiple occasions and informed Ms. Peterson that she would be terminated as a result of her political party affiliation. On one occasion, Ms. Parker informed Ms. Peterson that she would be replaced by a specifically named individual who is a member or supporter of the Republican Party. Ms. Parker stated that the termination was strictly political."
"At the public meetings of the county election commissions on which Defendants respectively serve, save Rutherford County, Defendants elected a new administrator of elections who is a member or supporter of the Republican Party, thereby terminating the employment of Plaintiffs solely because of their actual or perceived support of the Democratic Party."
Parker, Chairman of the DeKalb County Election Commission, explained during the April 24th meeting that since the administrator position was "open" with a new election commission, Peterson was not being fired, just not re-hired. She added that the administrator serves at the pleasure of the election commission. " I don't look at this as a dismissal, but simply as not a re-hire. The position is open with the new commission and therefore the commission has spoken for Mr. (Dennis) Stanley."
Parker also denied assertions, during the meeting, that the Republican majority violated the open meetings law. "I would like to go on record as saying there have not been any secret meetings among anybody about what is going on."
The lawsuit alleges "At the public meetings of the county election commissions, Defendants failed to consider the knowledge and experience of such prospective appointee in the following areas: administrative, managerial, instructional, communication, budgetarial, purchasing, promotional, legal, and general office skills and other related skills necessary to fulfill the statutory requirements of administrators when evaluating its prospective appointee as mandated by state law."
However, Chairman Parker, during the April 24th meeting, stated that "Mr. Stanley is qualified I think in his managerial and all the duties he had to perform at the newspaper (Smithville Review)".
The lawsuit further alleges "At the public meetings of the county election commissions, at which Plaintiffs were terminated, Plaintiffs were individually praised for the quality of their work as administrator of elections, and no criticisms of Plaintiff's job performance, relating to their administrative, managerial, instructional, communication, budgetarial, purchasing, promotional, legal, and general office skills and other related skills were stated."
"But for the political affiliation, Ms. Peterson (and the other plaintiffs) would still be employed as administrators of elections."
"Defendants made a subjective determination based upon Plaintiff's private political speech to terminate Plaintiff's public employment or to take steps to terminate their employment."
"Plaintiffs' protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor in Defendants' terminating Plaintiff's employment."
"Public employees such as Plaintiffs do not surrender their First Amendment rights by reason of their employment as administrators of elections. The First Amendment protects a public employee's right to political speech and his or her right to support the political party or candidate of their choice."
"Defendants' policy is unconstitutional because it reaches more broadly than is reasonably necessary to protect legitimate state interests or promote the efficiency and effectiveness of the county election commissions at the expense of protected First Amendment freedoms.'
"Plaintiff's actual or perceived membership or support of the Democratic Party did not warrant the termination and threat of termination of their public employment."
"Defendant's outrageous, reckless, and wanton actions and omissions have violated Plaintiff's constitutionally protected speech, caused Plaintiff's emotional distress, lost wages and income, and substantially affected Plaintiff's earning capacity and potential."
The federal court lawsuit was filed Wednesday, July 8th in Nashville.
In the Chancery Court lawsuit, filed on June 19th, Peterson is asking the court to declare the action of the election commission terminating her as arbitrary, illegal, and void.
Peterson is further requesting that the court, pursuant to state law and upon a final hearing, order the election commission to immediately reinstate her to the position as administrator of elections and award her back pay, compensatory damages in the amount of $500,000 and the penalty allowed by law, and that the court grant all other relief it deems equitable and appropriate.