State Lawmakers Repeal DeKalb County Private Act

April 13, 2014
Dwayne Page

State Lawmakers have voted to repeal a 1949 Private Act governing the manner in which members of the DeKalb County Democratic Party's Executive Committee are selected. Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper, in a recent opinion, found the Act to be unconstitutional and unenforceable.

The county commission, in February, adopted a resolution by the required two thirds majority vote asking state legislators to repeal the Act. Jim Judkins, Chairman of the DeKalb County Democratic Party came before the county commission seeking this action.

Judkins explained that the 1949 Private Act, which was amended in 1972, calls for forty members of the local Democratic Executive Committee to be elected by popular vote every two years during the August Tennessee Democratic Primary from nineteen precincts across the county, some of which no longer exist.

The party has chosen instead to re-organize every two years under Tennessee Democratic Party rules, appointing seven members to the executive committee, one from each district.

According to Judkins, party leaders and members want the Private Act to be repealed to avoid a possible legal challenge in the future as to the validity in which the local party organizes.

The legislation to repeal the Private Act was introduced in the State House by State Representative Mark Pody and in the Senate by State Senator Mae Beavers. The vote to repeal was 91 to 0 in the State House and 31-0 in the Senate.

The measure must now come back before the county commission to be adopted again by at least a two thirds majority vote before it can take effect.

The State Attorney General's opinion basically states that the legislature can't constitutionally place burdensome restrictions on political parties in how they may organize.

In his opinion, AG Cooper wrote that "the statute (Private Act) constitutionally burdens the associated rights of the Tennessee Democratic Party and its members in DeKalb County and therefore is unenforceable".

The DeKalb County Democratic Executive Committee was established under Private Acts of 1949, Chapter 771 and was subsequently amended in 1972. The Act calls for forty members to be elected from nineteen different precincts according to the population at those times. Several of the old precincts in the statute no longer exist and attempts by local party leaders to determine the old boundaries proved unsuccessful. It has been several years since anyone ran for the executive committee in DeKalb County on the primary election ballot, something the Private Act requires every two years, and the Act does not provide for reapportionment in redrawing the precincts.

Instead of electing members to the executive committee, as the Private Act calls for, the party sought an answer as to whether members could be appointed under the Tennessee Democratic Party Rules. Without a compelling state interest, Cooper's opinion basically finds that the party may determine for itself how to organize, a right protected by the U.S. Constitution.

In seeking the AG opinion on the enforceability of the Act, local party leaders posed the question as to whether the DeKalb County Democratic Party could cease following provisions of the seemingly antiquated private act, which remains the law for DeKalb County, and hold a reorganization convention pursuant to Tennessee Democratic Party rules, organizing every two years under the general statutory law for the purpose of conducting business.

In his opinion, Attorney General Cooper wrote that "A political party's determination of the boundaries of its own association, and of the structure which best allows it to pursue its political goals, is protected by the United States Constitution". He cited a California case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional several California statutes restricting the organization and composition of political party committees. The high court ruled that the restrictions limited a political party's discretion in how to organize itself, conduct its affairs, and select its leaders and that because these were constitutionally protected associational rights, the state of California's restrictions could only be upheld if they served a compelling state interest. In that case, the court ruled California had not shown a compelling interest.

Under the DeKalb County Act, the State Attorney General opined that "the General Assembly directed that the DeKalb County Democratic Executive Committee have forty members elected in the Democratic Primary from a list of precincts, some of which apparently no longer exist. Members must be elected to two-year terms. The Act thus sets the size of a single county executive party committee, the method by which its members must be elected, and the terms they must serve. The Act clearly imposes restrictions limiting the Tennessee Democratic Party's discretion in how to organize itself, conduct its own affairs, and select its leaders in DeKalb County. This Office is unable to identify any compelling State interest "necessary to the integrity of the electoral process" that these restrictions serve. For this reason, the Act unconstitutionally burdens the associational rights of the Tennessee Democratic Party and its members in DeKalb County and is unenforceable," wrote AG Cooper.

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