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Wallace v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

April 10, 2018

LUDYE N. WALLACE
v.
METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT OF NASHVILLE AND DAVIDSON COUNTY, TENNESSEE ET AL.

          Session April 9, 2018

          Appeal by Permission from the Chancery Court for Davidson County No. 18-0254-I Claudia Bonnyman, Chancellor

         We assumed jurisdiction over this appeal pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(1) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and ordered expedited briefing and oral argument. The issue we must determine is whether the vacancy in the Office of Mayor of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County may be filled at the August 2, 2018 election, or whether it must be filled at a special election pursuant to section 15.03 of the Metropolitan Charter. We conclude that section 15.03 of the Metropolitan Charter requires that a special election be set, that the Davidson County Election Commission therefore acted in contravention of the Charter in setting the election on August 2, 2018, and that the trial court erred in denying Mr. Wallace's claims for relief and dismissing this case. Accordingly, the judgment of the trial court is reversed. The Commission is hereby ordered to set a special election in accordance with Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-14-102(a). This opinion is not subject to rehearing under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 39, and the Clerk is directed to certify this opinion as final and to immediately issue the mandate.

         Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-3-201(d)(1) Appeal by Permission; Judgment of the Chancery Court Reversed with Instructions

          Daniel A. Horwitz and Jamie R. Hollin, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Ludye N. Wallace.

          Lora Barkenbus Fox and Catherine J. Pham, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellees, Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County and Davidson County Election Commission.

          Jeffrey S. Bivins, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Cornelia A. Clark, Sharon G. Lee, Holly Kirby, and Roger A. Page, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          JEFFREY S. BIVINS, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         On March 6, 2018, the Mayor of Metropolitan Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee resigned. On that same date, the Metropolitan Clerk notified the Davidson County Administrator of Elections of the vacancy in the Office of Mayor. On March 9, 2018, the Davidson County Election Commission (the "Commission") met, in part, for the purpose of setting a date for an election to fill the vacancy in the Office of Mayor. The Commission heard a brief presentation by legal counsel for the Commission, discussed the matter, heard public comment, including comment by counsel for Mr. Wallace, and further discussed the matter.[1] The Commission then voted three to two against filing a declaratory judgment action seeking judicial guidance; three to two against setting the election on May 1, 2018; and three to two in favor of setting the election on August 2, 2018.

         On March 12, 2018, Mr. Wallace filed in the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee a "Petition for Writ of Certiorari and Writ of Mandamus, " naming as defendants the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County ("Metro") and the Commission. Mr. Wallace asserted jurisdiction pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated sections 27-9-101 (common law writ of certiorari), 29-25-102 (mandamus), and 29-14-102 (declaratory judgment).[2] Mr. Wallace alleged that he is a citizen and resident of Nashville and that he is a qualified candidate for the Office of Mayor. He alleged that the action of the Commission in setting the election to fill the vacancy in the Office of Mayor on August 2, 2018, was in contravention of the Metropolitan Charter (the "Charter") and so was arbitrary, capricious, and illegal. Mr. Wallace further alleged that the effect of the Commission's action was to deny him the right to seek election to the Office of Mayor because it extended the election period. According to Mr. Wallace, he lacks the financial resources to run a campaign for this additional election period. Mr. Wallace sought a writ of certiorari voiding the action of the Commission, a declaratory judgment declaring the action of the Commission illegal, and a writ of mandamus ordering that the Commission set a special election in May 2018, pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-14-102. Mr. Wallace also filed a motion for extraordinary relief and for an expedited hearing.

         On March 12, 2018, the trial court issued a writ of certiorari and directed Metro and the Commission to forward to the Clerk and Master of the Chancery Court a transcript and complete record of the proceedings before the Commission. On that same date, the trial court granted Mr. Wallace's motion for an expedited hearing and set the hearing for March 14, 2018.

         On March 13, 2018, Metro and the Commission filed a motion to dismiss on the ground of failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Rule 12.02(6) of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. Metro and the Commission subsequently filed a declaration of the Administrator of Elections with exhibits, including a digital recording of the Commission's March 9, 2018 meeting.[3] The trial court conducted a hearing on March 14, 2018. The parties agreed that the hearing and the subsequent ruling of the trial court would constitute a final adjudication of and judgment on the merits, and the trial court considered the matter accordingly. The trial court issued a ruling from the bench, finding that Mr. Wallace was not entitled to the relief sought. On March 16, 2018, the trial court entered its final order, adjudicating the case on the merits. Based on its construction of section 15.03 of the Charter, the trial court concluded: "[T]here is a general metropolitan election scheduled within 12 months after the March 6, 2018 vacancy in the office of mayor, and, therefore, no special election is required. The August 2, 2018 election, a general election where several metropolitan government offices appear on the ballot, is a metropolitan general election. Accordingly, the Election Commission did not err in setting the mayoral election for August 2, 2018." The trial court denied mandamus relief and dismissed the case "in its entirety."[4]

         On March 15, 2018, Mr. Wallace filed a notice of appeal. On that same date, he filed in this Court a motion requesting that we assume jurisdiction pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(1) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court.[5] By Order filed March 22, 2018, this Court granted Mr. Wallace's motion, assumed jurisdiction over this appeal, and set an expedited briefing schedule and oral argument. Oral argument for this case was held on April 9, 2018.

         II. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review[6]

         The issue before us is whether section 15.03 of the Charter authorizes the Commission to set the election to fill the current mayoral vacancy on August 2, 2018, or whether it instead requires the setting of a special election, as Mr. Wallace contends. This issue requires the Court to construe section 15.03 of the Charter and, more particularly, the phrase "general metropolitan election" as used in this section.

         The principles of statutory construction guide us in our interpretation of the Charter. See Renteria-Villegas v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville & Davidson Cnty., 382 S.W.3d 318, 321 (Tenn. 2012); Jordan v. Knox Cnty., Tenn., 213 S.W.3d 751, 763 (Tenn. 2007). Statutory interpretation and the application of a statute to the facts of a case involve questions of law and are reviewed under a de novo standard of review with no presumption of correctness afforded to the trial court. Tenn. Dep't of Corr. v. Pressley, 528 S.W.3d 506, 512 (Tenn. 2017); Arden v. Kozawa, 466 S.W.3d 758, 764 (Tenn. 2015). We thus independently review the relevant provisions of the Charter without any deference to the interpretations of the Commission or the trial court. See Pressley, 528 S.W.3d at 512.[7]

         The overriding purpose of a court in construing a statute is to ascertain and effectuate the legislative intent, without either expanding or contracting the statute's intended scope. Ray v. Madison Cnty., Tenn., 536 S.W.3d 824, 831 (Tenn. 2017); Pressley, 528 S.W.3d at 512. Legislative intent is first and foremost reflected in the language of the statute. Lee Medical, Inc. v. Beecher, 312 S.W.3d 515, 526 (Tenn. 2010). "We presume that the Legislature intended each word in a statute to have a specific purpose and meaning." Arden, 466 S.W.3d at 764. The words used in a statute are to be given their natural and ordinary meaning, and, because "words are known by the company they keep, " we construe them in the context in which they appear and in light of the general purpose of the statute. Lee Medical, 312 S.W.3d at 526; Ray, 536 S.W.3d at 831. "We endeavor to construe statutes in a reasonable manner 'which avoids statutory conflict and provides for harmonious operation of the laws.'" Ray, 536 S.W.3d at 831 (citation omitted). When a ...


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