Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Roane County Election Commission Could Decide Challenge To Candidate Residency Qualifications

September 20, 2017

In a case involving a 2014 election for circuit court judge in East Tennessee, the Tennessee Supreme Court has rejected the unsuccessful candidate’s claim that the Roane County Election Commission (“Commission”) had no authority under Tennessee law to decide a pre-election challenge to the successful candidate’s residency qualifications to run for the office. A majority of the Court held that the unsuccessful candidate’s election contest was, in effect, an appeal from the Commission’s previous decision, but was filed after the legal time limit. As a result, the Court dismissed the lawsuit.

In February 2014, Michael Pemberton and Thomas McFarland both filed nominating petitions with the Commission to run for circuit court judge for the Ninth Judicial District, which includes Loudon, Meigs, Morgan, and Roane Counties.  

After the campaign was underway, a voter filed a complaint with the Commission, claiming that Mr. Pemberton had not lived in the judicial district for at least a year as required by law. To resolve the voter’s complaint, the Commission held a public hearing before the entire Commission. Mr. McFarland was aware of the hearing but chose not to participate. At the end of the hearing, the Commission ruled in favor of Mr. Pemberton, voting unanimously to place him on the ballot for circuit court judge for the Ninth Judicial District. Mr. McFarland did not file any action after the Commission’s decision.   

Mr. Pemberton won the election in August 2014. Mr. McFarland then filed an election contest lawsuit in Roane County Chancery Court, claiming that Mr. Pemberton did not meet the residency requirement for circuit court judge. The Chancery Court held that Mr. McFarland was required to file his lawsuit within 60 days after the action by the Commission. Mr. McFarland filed his lawsuit well after that, so the Chancery Court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed this decision. 

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted Mr. McFarland permission to appeal. A majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts’ decision to dismiss Mr. McFarland’s election contest. The Court rejected a number of arguments advanced by Mr. McFarland. The majority concluded that Tennessee law requires an appeal from an administrative decision to be filed within 60 days after the decision is made, here, within 60 days after the Commission’s vote.  Mr. McFarland failed to do that, so the Court affirmed dismissal of Mr. McFarland’s lawsuit.

Justice Cornelia A. Clark filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Sharon G. Lee joined in Justice Clark’s dissent and also filed a separate dissent. Justices Clark and Lee both would reverse dismissal of Mr. McFarland’s lawsuit and allow his election contest to proceed.

In her dissent, Justice Clark emphasized that statutes governing Tennessee election law do not expressly authorize county election commissions to convene hearings to adjudicate pre-election challenges to a candidate’s residency qualifications. She also rejected any implied authority to do so.  Justice Clark would have held that, as a ministerial body, the Commission was limited to filing a declaratory judgment action and asking a court to determine Mr. Pemberton’s qualifications.  Justice Clark opined that the Court’s prior decisions and existing statutes give an unsuccessful candidate, like Mr. McFarland, the right to file a lawsuit after the election to contest the successful candidate’s satisfaction of legal residency requirements.   

In addition to joining Justice Clark’s dissent, Justice Lee’s separate opinion expressed concern that the majority’s decision misapplies existing Tennessee law and creates practical problems for any candidate running for public office.  Justice Lee contended that a candidate for public office is not required to file a lawsuit challenging an election commission’s residency decision in the middle of a campaign.         

To read the majority decision in William Thomas McFarland v. Michael S. Pemberton et. al, authored by Justice Holly Kirby, and the dissenting opinions by Justice Cornelia A. Clark and Justice Sharon G. Lee, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.