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VOL. 127 | NO. 135 | Thursday, July 12, 2012

Municipal Referendums Hearing Continues

By Bill Dries

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The hearing in Memphis federal court to determine whether referendums on suburban municipal school districts will go ahead as scheduled looks to be an all-day affair.

The hearing broke for lunch Thursday, July 12, with federal Judge Hardy Mays still to hear from attorneys for the state of Tennessee, the six suburban towns and cities, the Shelby County Election Commission and the city of Memphis and Memphis City Council.

Early voting in advance of the Aug. 2 election day begins Friday, July 13. Mays' goal is to see if he can rule on the motion by Shelby County Commissioners to stop the referendums on the ballot.

The commission claims the referendums and the state laws that make them possible violate the Tennessee Constitution. Mays is not hearing a third claim by commissioners that the school districts would violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

During the Thursday morning session, Mays questioned Leo Bearman, attorney for the County Commission, closely on Bearman’s claim that allowing the ballot questions to go forward would cause “irreparable harm.”

Bearman says the legislation applies only to Shelby County and takes away private act provisions that would have required a two-thirds vote by the County Commission before legislation could be passed. So, he framed the question as taking away the ability of the commission to vote for their constituents on the matter.

“This will undermine what has been accomplished so far,” Bearman argued of the move to the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems. “It will have serious ramifications – serious psychological ramifications and emotional ramifications.”

“How are the citizens of Shelby County harmed if this vote goes forward?” Mays asked again, saying he could and would void the election results later if he finds constitutional violations at a later hearing.

“The results will be no more valid if they are unconstitutional,” Mays added. “It’s done all the time.”

“It’s easier to say that than it is to do it,” Bearman countered.

“If citizens vote and then discover the election doesn’t count, that’s all unfortunate,” Mays said. “But it is inherent.”

Mays' comments indicate one of many options he could take in some kind of decision by the end of the day Thursday. That option would be to put off a decision on the County Commission's legal claims but let the referendums move forward.

Bearman advocated as an alternative for letting the elections move forward but not certifying the results.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the state and the suburban cities argued the video excerpts from the legislative session don’t include the context of the legislative debate. They also claim the laws governing municipal school districts could apply to other counties – not just Shelby County.

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