Federal Lawsuit Against Election Commission Dismissed at Trial Court Level

February 23, 2014
Dwayne Page
John Harris, III

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit on the trial court level against the DeKalb County Election Commission and several others in Tennessee brought by former administrators of elections in 2009 who claim they did not get to keep their jobs for political reasons.

The order for entry of final judgment in the case was filed by U.S. District Judge Kevin H. Sharp.

Nashville Attorney John Harris, III, who represents the DeKalb County Election Commission in this case, said while this is good news for the election commission, the plaintiffs could still file an appeal to overturn the federal court's ruling that the position of Administrator of Elections is subject to political patronage.

"Last week the federal district judge entered an order dismissing the entire case in favor of the election commissioners. The consequence of that dismissal is that the plaintiff now has a period of time within which to appeal the case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue that would be appealed if that is done is whether the court's prior ruling that the position of administrator of elections is a job under Tennessee law that has sufficient political significance that the individuals holding that position can be selected or deselected or fired based upon their party affiliation. Everybody was in agreement that the trial court's ruling on that issue really was so significant that it resolved all the issues in the case and not just part of them (issues)," said Harris in an interview with WJLE Friday.

Harris said since the trial court has entered a final judgment, any appeal would have to be heard by the appellate court. "This appeal process could easily take one to two years depending upon how fast the appellate court wants to move with it. Part of that is because they have a lot of cases on their docket. We would just sort of have to stand in line to be heard. There is an initial period of time where the parties have to order the record and then write their briefs and submit the briefs to the court and that will take several months to accomplish. We're making progress toward getting the issue resolved one way or the other," said Harris.

Former DeKalb County Election Administrator Lisa Peterson and other former administrators filed the lawsuit in July 2009 against the defendant county election commissions, claiming that their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated when they were removed from their jobs because of their actual, or perceived, political party association. The former administrators asked the court to order their reinstatement, or in the alternative, order that they receive front pay for a reasonable amount of time. They wanted full back pay and a judgment for compensatory damages and punitive damages and an award for reasonable attorneys fees. Locally, the lawsuit named as defendants the three Republicans on the DeKalb County Election Commission James Dean, Walteen Parker, and Barbara Vanatta.

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