Judge: Democrats’ effort to boot Smith can proceed
NASHVILLE — A Nashville judge ruled Thursday that a lawsuit seeking to kick Republican Robin Smith off the state House District 26 GOP primary ballot in Hamilton County may proceed, at least for now.
But in a flurry of other procedural rulings from the bench, Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman also adopted a tougher legal standard of review in the Hamilton County case that could make it harder for Tennessee Democrats’ effort to boot Smith from the Aug. 2 ballot.
If Democrats are successful, it would leave David Jones the only candidate and the automatic winner on the Nov. 6 ballot.
Early voting in the Republican and Democratic primaries as well as other federal, state and county contests began Friday.
In other rulings, Bonnyman also decided the Tennessee Democratic Party had legal standing to file the lawsuit. That was despite questions raised by Nashville attorney Tim Warnack, who was hired by the Hamilton County Election Commission to defend commissioners’ approval of Smith to replace state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, on the GOP primary ballot.
And, Bonnyman said, Smith, a former Tennessee Republican Party chairman, won’t be dragged into the case, at least right now.
State Democrats filed suit against the Hamilton County Election Commission on July 2 after commissioners earlier that day agreed to let state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, quit the contest after the withdrawal deadline.
Election commissioners then voted to let Smith, who had the requisite number of registered voters on a petition, replace McCormick, a Chattanooga businessman and former House majority leader, on the ballot.
McCormick had publicly stated in late June that he was withdrawing from the race. That was after Democrats began raising questions about his legal residency in light of the 2017 purchase he and his wife made of a $487,000 Nashville home with a mortgage that said it was his “principal” residence.
But McCormick, a former House majority leader who was eyeing a bid to become the GOP-dominated chamber’s next speaker, scoffed at the accusations. He noted his wife, Kim McCormick, is a top aide to Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings and she now lives full time in Nashville. He said he spends the majority of his time outside the annual legislation session in Chattanooga.
Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins, a Republican, investigated and said that based on documents, including McCormick’s personal and business licenses and local and federal tax returns, McCormick was still a legal resident.
But less than a week later, McCormick announced he was getting out of the race to take a job at the Nashville office of a Chattanooga-based engineering firm and would quit the General Assembly in October. He said his new employer was requiring him to be in Nashville full time, meeting requirements in Tennessee law that allow candidates in such circumstances to drop out of a race, come off the ballot and be replaced.
During Friday’s hearing in Nashville, Chancellor Bonnyman cited a 2017 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in an unrelated Roane County election case dealing with the local county election commission’s handling of a residency issue. Justices decided commissioners had the authority under Tennessee election statutes to act in a “quasi-judicial hearing.”
Democrats’ attorney, Ben Gastel of Nashville, argued that Hamilton County Election commissioners were acting in a “ministerial” capacity. Bonnyman’s ruling effectively makes it harder for state Democrats to introduce evidence.
Gastel argued unsuccessfully that it was “very clear” Hamilton County commissioners had “no findings of fact,” later adding, it wasn’t a “quasi-judicial hearing. He noted they didn’t include the June 12 letter from state Election Coordinator Goins in which he spoke to McCormick’s legal residency.
As a result of the ruling, Bonnyman also directed that Gastel, who had planned to question McCormick’s new employer on Friday and McCormick himself on Monday under oath about being required to live full time in Nashville, suspend the depositions until later at best.
And in another potential blow, Bonnyman said she might later consider allowing the case to be moved from her jurisdiction to Hamilton County.
Robin Smith Gerald McCormick