NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's highest court on Friday temporarily blocked a lower court's decision that lawmakers must redraw the state's Senate maps. This means that 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 in which years these seats are on the ballot.
The same judges decided to temporarily block the Senate map in 2022, but the Supreme Court then also reinstated the districts, reasoning that it was too close to the election.
In response to the November ruling, prosecutors quickly moved to pause the decision, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing and that the state wanted to exhaust all its appeals before having to reconfigure the district lines.
The Tennessee Supreme Court sided with the state in its ruling Friday. Doing so will keep the cards in place while the appeals process plays out, which is typically a lengthy process and could easily extend past the 2024 general election.
Republicans applauded the decision, including Senate President Randy McNally, who has repeatedly defended the Senate map as legally sound.
“(McNally) is grateful that the court recognized the clear and convincing need for a stay in this case,” said Adam Kleinheider, the speaker's spokesperson. “He remains optimistic that 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 isn't enough time to move forward within that timeline.
Lawyers for the plaintiff who challenged the Senate map said lawmakers could immediately start working on a map before officially going into session. They wrote that the Supreme Court could rule on the state's appeal in mid-January, providing a timeline for approving the maps similar to the one in which lawmakers initially completed their redistricting work in late January 2022.
These are maps that were adopted by the Republican legislature with a supermajority in 2022 during the once-a-decade redistricting process.
The Tennessee Constitution requires districts to be numbered consecutively in counties that have more than one district. The existing redistricting plan does not do that in Davidson County, which includes Nashville. Instead, the districts are numbered 17, 19, 20 and 21.
The numbering is important because four-year Senate terms are staggered, making some districts eligible in presidential elections and others in gubernatorial election cycles.
Currently, these four districts are represented by three Democrats and one Republican. There are 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats in the Senate.
Court filings show that the state's attorneys “admitted” that they would not defend the Senate map in court and instead turned their attention to arguing that the plaintiffs had no right to sue.
“The courts have found the Senate map to be an illegal gerrymander,” said Brandon Puttbrese, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Party. “Any new ruling that allows unconstitutional maps to remain in place for new elections undermines our democracy and the will of the voters.”
The Tennessee statehouse map was also challenged in the lawsuit, although 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 challenging the maps.
The state argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the maps, but the panel of judges allowed the case to proceed, with one plaintiff eligible to challenge the House map and another the map of the Senate could contest.
In April 2022, the state-level panel of 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 to Tennessee's redistricting maps is also still pending in federal court.
Jonathan Mattise of Nashville contributed to this report.