Nashville judge rules against Tennessee over ‘blackout period’ for PACs
A Nashville judge ruled against the state of Tennessee Wednesday in a case that challenged a law prohibiting nonpartisan political action committees from making campaign contributions to candidates within 10 days of an election.
It means the state can’t enforce the “blackout period” statute over PACs. Under Tennessee law, only committees controlled by a political party have been able to contribute financially to candidates 10 days out from an election.
In her ruling, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle granted judgement in favor of a nonprofit called Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws, which sued the state over the law ahead of the August state primary election.
The ruling came after Lyle granted a motion from the non-profit to exclude evidence presented by the state. The judge said the state did not comply with a court order to provide a description of testimony to be given by a witness.
“The court concludes that the way the state has proceeded, it has the effect of a trial by ambush and it doesn’t provide an opportunity for the other side to defend against proof that the defendant, the state, seeks to offer,” Lyle said.
As a result, Lyle said the state has “insufficient facts” to withstand the plaintiff’s claims. “So judgement is granted in favor of the plaintiff.”
State vows to appeal decision
The court had set a timeline for an expedited trial in the case.
Deputy Attorney Gen. Janet Kleinfelter, representing the state, said the state intends to appeal the decision in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
“We’ll get that motion and notice filed today, your honor,” she said.
The lawsuit said that Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws hoped to make a $500 contribution to Republican Tennessee House District 56 candidate Joseph Williams, who lost in the Republican primary to Brent Moody.
But they were limited to making the contribution because of the blackout period restriction. The group had donated $300 to Williams prior to the blackout period.
“Elected officials and political parties cannot lawfully censor disfavored political speakers while reserving special treatment in the political process for themselves,” said Daniel Horwitz, an attorney for Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws. “In securing this groundbreaking win, we are proud to have made Tennessee’s democratic process just a little bit freer.”
The suit calls the law “an overbroad speech restriction that criminalizes substantial protected speech and unconstitutionally proscribes core political speech that falls within a realm in which the importance of First Amendment protection is at its zenith.”
Horwitz was joined by attorney Jamie Hollin in representing the plaintiff. The same duo successfully sued the Davidson County Election Commission earlier this year to force a special mayoral election in May to replace former Mayor Megan Barry as opposed to an election in August.
Reach Joey Garrison at 615-259-8236, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @joeygarrison.