Jordan v. Knox County

Decision Date12 January 2007
Citation213 S.W.3d 751
PartiesDiane JORDAN, et al. v. KNOX COUNTY, Tennessee, et al.
CourtTennessee Supreme Court

John E. Owings, Law Director, and Mary Ann Stackhouse, Deputy Law Director, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellant, Knox County, Tennessee.

L. Caesar Stair, III, Thomas N. McAdams, and Herbert S. Moncier, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellant, John Schmid (County Commissioner).

John P. Valliant, Jr., Arthur G. Seymour, Jr., and Matthew A. Grossman, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellees, John R. Mills (County Commissioner), Larry Clark (County Commissioner), Billy Tindell (County Commissioner), David Collins (County Commissioner), Diane Jordan (County Commissioner), John Griess (County Commissioner), Phil Guthe (County Commissioner) and Sam Anderson (Board of Education).

James L. Murphy, III and Austin L. McMullen, Nashville, Tennessee, for appellee, Knox County Election Commission.

Paul G. Summers, Attorney General & Reporter; Michael Moore, Solicitor General; Janet Kleinfelter, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee, Brook Thompson, State Administrator of Elections.

Gregory D. Shanks, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, Catherine A. Quist (Circuit and General Sessions Court Clerk).

Albert J. Harb, Dean B. Farmer, and Matthew A. Birdwell, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, Mike Lowe (Trustee).

Ralph E. Harwell and Tracy Jackson Smith, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, Martha Phillips (Criminal and Domestic Relations Court Clerk).

Jon G. Roach, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, William Mike Padgett (County Clerk).

Michael S. Ruble and Robert H. Watson, Jr., Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, Timothy Hutchison (Sheriff).

Steven G. Shope, Knoxville, Tennessee, for appellee, Steve Hall (Register of Deeds).

Brian L. Kuhn, County Attorney, Christy L. Kinard, Assistant County Attorney, and John L. Ryder, Memphis, Tennessee, for Amicus Curiae, Shelby.

Frierson M. Graves, Jr. and Michael F. Pleasants, Memphis, Tennessee, for Amicus Curiae, Richland.


GARY R. WADE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WILLIAM M. BARKER, C.J., JANICE M. HOLDER and CORNELIA A. CLARK, JJ., and E. RILEY ANDERSON, Sp. J., joined.

In this expedited appeal, the primary issue presented for review is whether Knox County, Tennessee, has a valid governmental charter. A secondary issue is whether a term limits amendment to the county charter should be applied and, if so, to which of the elected county officials. We hold that while Knox County failed to comply with the enabling legislation for instituting a charter form of government, since September 1, 1990, Knox County has been governed under a de facto charter with a county mayor, county commissioners, and other de facto officers. For the reasons set out in this opinion, it is our conclusion that the term limits amendment meets due process guidelines and applies to all elected Knox County Government officials except for the court clerks and the school board member, each of whom is protected by either the state constitution or statute. The judgment of the Knox County Chancery Court, which invalidated both the charter and the amendment, is therefore affirmed in part and reversed in part.

I. Factual Background
A. Knox County Charter

On July 15, 1988, the Knox County Charter Commission ("Charter Commission") was initiated by proclamation of then-County Executive Dwight Kessel, pursuant to the enabling legislation at Tennessee Code Annotated sections 5-1-201 to -215 (2005).1 App., exh. D. The Charter Commission was charged with the responsibility of establishing an alternative charter form of local government for consideration by the voters of the county. See Tenn.Code Ann. § 5-1-204(c)(3) (1988). Three days later, the proclamation was ratified by a two-thirds vote of all members of the county legislative body. Knox County Comm'n Res. 88/7/D (July 18, 1988); App., exh. D. Under the proposed charter form of government, Knox County would gain the authority to pass ordinances applicable to its locality without having to solicit the approval of the state legislature. Under the proposed form, the only restrictions were that these ordinances "shall not be opposed to the general laws [of the state] and shall not interfere with the local affairs of any municipality" within the Knox County boundaries. S. Constructors, Inc. v. Loudon County Bd. of Educ., 58 S.W.3d 706, 713 (Tenn.2001).

The Charter Commission held a series of open meetings and considered comments from the public in an effort to develop a governmental structure worthy of approval. The Shelby County Charter was used as a model. The county attorney from that jurisdiction met with the Charter Commission and provided his perspective of the requisite charter content, the political aspects of the referendum, and the experiences of Shelby County under its new form of government. Pursuant to the terms of Tennessee Code Annotated section 5-1-208(a), the Charter Commission prepared and filed its proposal less than nine months after the date of its initial meeting.

The proposed Knox County Charter established the offices of the county executive, now county mayor,2 the county commission, and a law director (a county office not otherwise recognized in our state constitution). By its terms, article II established the Legislative Branch. The offices of county executive and law director were identified by article III as the Executive Branch. This latter article also made reference to the office of sheriff but did not specifically enumerate the functions of the office. The proposed charter contained only passing references to other state constitutional officers that had existed under the prior form of county government. Its provisions neither expressly established the offices of sheriff, trustee, register of deeds, county clerk, or property assessor, nor explicitly assigned the duties and functions traditionally performed by those officials to any other administrative or executive officers. As the minutes of the Charter Commission reflect, the members made every effort to avoid addressing controversial issues that might have stirred opposition to their proposal. The record of their deliberations clearly demonstrates that the commission members labored under the premise that they lacked the power to alter or abolish those traditional county offices identified by our state constitution. Minutes of the Knox County Home Rule Charter Commission (Aug. 2, 1988; Aug. 16, 1988; Aug. 24, 1988).

James R. Carroll, Jr., the chairman of the Charter Commission, certified and filed copies of the proposed charter with both the county clerk and the Knox County Election Commission. Tenn.Code Ann. § 5-1-208(b). A referendum was held on November 8, 1988. The ballot question submitted to the voters provided as follows:

Shall Knox County Government be changed from its current form to a Home Rule Charter Government consisting of an Executive Branch headed by the Executive of Knox County, a Legislative Branch consisting of the Commission of Knox County and a Judicial Branch consisting of the Existing Courts of Knox County, or any other courts established by law?

                  For ______
                  Against ______

Home Rule Charter Referendum, Knox County General Election Ballot (Nov. 8, 1988) (App., exh. F); see also Charter of Knox County, Tennessee, art. IX, § 9.08. The charter was ratified with 60,479 votes in favor of amendment and 24,938 votes against amendment. Although required by statute, neither the returns of the referendum nor a copy of the charter was certified by the Knox County Election Commission to the Secretary of State. See Tenn.Code Ann. §§ 5-1-209(e)(1)-(2). In consequence, the Secretary of State did not issue a proclamation confirming the results of the referendum. Id., § 5-1-209(e)(2). Because there was no proclamation from the Secretary of State, the Knox County Clerk was unable to attach a copy to the charter on file in his Knoxville office. Id. Despite these procedural deficiencies, the county executive and the county commission exercised governance under the new charter beginning September 1, 1990. Since that date, elections for those offices have been held at regular intervals. Even though the offices of sheriff, trustee, register of deeds, county clerk, and property assessor were not expressly established by the terms of the newly approved charter, individuals were elected to those positions in the usual manner and have, in fact, performed the traditional duties of their respective offices since September 1, 1990.

B. Knox County Referendum on Term Limits

Over three years later, in January of 1994, the Knox County Commission considered but tabled an ordinance proposing to amend the charter by establishing term limits for the county commissioners but not otherwise affecting the county executive, the law director, or any other elected offices. It was in that context that later in the year, the requisite number of qualified Knox County voters petitioned for a term limits amendment to the charter, the relevant language of which declared as follows:

The undersigned registered voters of Knox County, pursuant to Knox County Charter section 8.05(c), petition that the following amendment to the Knox County charter be placed before the voters of Knox County for approval by referendum. The undersigned seek the following amendment to the Knox County Charter.

"Knox County Charter Article 8 is amended by adding a new section 8.17

Section 8.17 Term Limits.

A. Effective January 1, 1995, no person shall be eligible to serve in any elected office of Knox County if during the previous 2 terms of that office, the person in question has served more than a single term. Service prior to the passage of this measure shall not count in determining length of service. Judges are exempt from this provision.

B. In January prior to each state legislative session until such a time that it can be...

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