Election Commission Wins Another Round In Federal Lawsuit

A three judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit on the trial court level against the DeKalb County Election Commission and several others in Tennessee brought in 2009 by former administrators of elections who claim they did not get to keep their jobs for political reasons.
Nashville Attorney John Harris, III, who represents the DeKalb County Election Commission in this case, told WJLE Monday that this is good news for the election commission. “Last week, we received an opinion from the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the federal trial court’s initial decision that a Tennessee Administrator of Elections at the county election commission level is a position that can be terminated or even hired based upon political party affiliation. The significance of that is it means that if the plaintiffs in the case were correct in alleging that in 2009 they were terminated or not rehired because of their affiliation with the Democratic party, the 6th Circuit and the federal court hearing the case have now said that’s okay because the positions (administrators of elections) are political enough in nature that it is reasonable for the election commissions to consider party affiliation in making their employment decisions,” 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.
In February 2014, U.S. District Judge Kevin H. Sharp dismissed the case in favor of the election commissioners. The plaintiffs then appealed the case to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals as to whether the federal court’s 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.
According to Harris, the plaintiffs are now basically left with two options should they want to pursue the case. They could ask for a review by the entire body of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals or file an appeal to the U.S Supreme Court seeking to overturn the federal court’s ruling that the position of Administrator of Elections is subject to political patronage. “The plaintiffs could now ask that the entire 6th Circuit reconsider the decision. That’s called an “ENBANC” request and it is discretionary. It has to be enough of the panel who think the three judges who decided the case made an error that they would want to reopen that can of worms so to speak. Alternatively, the plaintiffs could ask the United States Supreme Court to reconsider this ruling and take it up as a case in the court’s discretion. Again, it may be a situation where although that right technically exists there just may not be enough interest in it nationally to pursue it. But one of those (options) would have to occur within the next sixty days,” said Harris.

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