Federal Court Ruling Ends Consolidation Quest

By Bill Dries

The last unresolved issue of the 2010 attempt to consolidate city of Memphis and Shelby County governments ended quietly last week in Memphis federal court.

The 2010 federal court lawsuit over the failed consolidation attempt – the most serious attempt in 39 years – ended with an order Wednesday, March 19, from U.S. District Judge Thomas Anderson granting a motion for summary judgment by defendants in the case.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2010 by eight Memphians less than a month before the dual referendums – in the city of Memphis and the county outside Memphis – on a metro consolidation charter drafted by a metro charter commission.

The proposal lost by a large margin in the county outside Memphis. It was approved by a narrow margin within Memphis.

A U.S. District Court ruling last week quietly ended the consolidation quest of city-county government.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The lawsuit specifically challenged on constitutional grounds the state law requiring that such a charter must be approved by dual majorities in separate referendums for consolidation to take place.

The plaintiffs contended the dual majorities requirement violated the federal Voting Rights Act provisions that guard against diluting African-American votes as well as the principal of one person-one vote and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

In a 19-page ruling by Anderson issued Monday and followed by Wednesday’s order, Anderson denied those claims in granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.

The defendants were the state of Tennessee and its election officials, as well as the suburban cities of Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville and Germantown. Suburban leaders in the four cities filed a motion that was granted by Anderson to intervene in the lawsuit.

Their intervention came against the backdrop of the move to consolidate Shelby County’s two public school systems that began as the election returns from November 2010 were still unofficial.

But the move to the schools merger wasn’t prompted by the failure of the metro charter. It was fueled by the election on the same ballot statewide of Republican majorities in both chambers of the Tennessee legislature that local schools consolidation advocates believed made more likely the passage of a bill creating a separate Shelby County Schools system.

The metro charter expressly left out any provision to merge the two school systems. But suburban leaders viewed the charter as a step toward a schools merger and then the schools merger as a preliminary step toward another try at government consolidation.

Anderson rejected the idea that there should be a single countywide referendum on consolidation, saying state law on the matter anticipated a legitimate difference in the effect such a merger would have on the city of Memphis and on the county outside Memphis.

The state law “protects local autonomy by insulating existing local governments from dissolution or alteration without their consent,” according to Anderson.

“The voters of Shelby County have a separate and distinct interest in consolidation because of the different impact consolidation would have on areas such as taxes, contractual rights to annexation and the special interests of voters in the suburban municipalities,” he wrote.

He mentioned that city services would go to a general services district paid for with tax revenue from residents of the suburban towns and cities who would still also pay for their own city services.

“Therefore, those residents had distinct interests from the residents of the city of Memphis who would not have faced such a problem,” Anderson concluded.

In such a consolidation, the six suburban towns and cities would have remained intact with their current forms of government.

But a consolidation would nullify annexation agreements under a countywide growth plan in which the county’s seven cities have mutually agreed to and identified areas each will annex in the future.

Memphis citizens would also see changes as well, but Anderson said the consequences would be different.

“It would obtain the benefit of consolidation along with those changes, while the suburban municipalities and the unincorporated areas in Shelby County would not,” he wrote.

On the voting rights claims, Anderson held that referendum results do not reflect majority and minority voting blocs that are at the heart of the plaintiff claims that minority voting blocs are always outvoted in such unconstitutional arrangements.

But the plaintiffs argued that those arrangements involve district lines involved in the elections of citizens to district seats.

Anderson agreed, quoting the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court case known as the Lockport case involving a New York state town that underwent a similar consolidation effort.

“In a referendum, the expression of voters’ will is direct, and there is no need to assure that the voters’ views will be adequately represented through their representatives in the legislature,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Lockport case.

In his ruling, Anderson added: “Not only can plaintiffs not show that this usually happens, they cannot show that it has ever happened with respect to referenda elections.”