Rep. Henry Fincher
NASHVILLE — Tennessee officials said Thursday that drought-parched Georgia lawmakers legally are all wet in their attempts to claim part of the Tennessee River on grounds the border was drawn sloppily in 1818.
“I don’t think it takes much research, to tell you the truth,” said Joe Sanders, general counsel with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. “I’m not aware of any legal theory that a challenge can be made to a boundary that’s been established for 200 years.”
Tennessee state Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, said his research of several legal cases indicates Georgia officials would not succeed if they sought to challenge the current border before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction in state boundary disputes.
“Tennessee has held this (land) since at least 1818, probably even longer just as a matter of exercise of authority,” Rep. Fincher said. “What this means as a practical matter is Georgia has pretty much lost this case heading out of the gate.”
The comments came as top Tennessee legislative leaders began fashioning a sharply worded legal and rhetorical denunciation of resolutions passed earlier this week by the Georgia House and Senate.
Peach State lawmakers’ resolutions would create a commission to work with Tennessee and North Carolina to resurvey and then reset the state line at the 35th parallel.
Officials in Georgia contend surveyors in 1818 wrongly set the border 1.1 miles south of where it belonged. Georgia officials want to move it north and take in a portion of the Tennessee River at Nickajack Lake in Marion County, water that Georgia lawmakers contend partially belongs to them.
Moving the border also would transfer to Georgia parts of Chattanooga and East Ridge in Hamilton County and part of Bradley County.
Efforts late Thursday afternoon to contact two of the main proponents of the legislation — Georgia Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, and Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell — were unsuccessful.
“This is a serious effort to secure our border and begin a discussion of water sharing,” Sen. Shafer said Wednesday.
Volunteer State officials have spoken against Georgia’s effort.
Tennessee House Majority Leader Gary Odom, D-Nashville, announced plans Thursday to push a legislative resolution on the water issue.
The resolution will “put our General Assembly on record as to what we think about those shenanigans” of Georgia lawmakers, he said.
Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, who is Senate speaker, said Volunteer State lawmakers can protect the border simply by refusing to name a commission.
“In order to change a state line, it takes both states to agree to it and Congress (to concur),” Lt. Gov. Ramsey said. “So if we just ignore the issue, there’s not much that they can do.”
Georgia Sen. Shafer is not ruling out going to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Tennessee Rep. Fincher said his research of several Supreme Court rulings shows the principle of “adverse possession” applies to boundary disputes between states.
The principle generally establishes ownership by possession if the land in question has been held by a person or entity for a long period of time.
“If you fenced it and you thought it’s yours, it doesn’t matter what the deed says or what the act says, it’s yours because you’ve owned it,” he said.
A 1990 boundary ruling involved a dispute between Georgia and South Carolina, he said.
“Long acquiescence in the practical location of an interstate boundary, and possession in accordance therewith, often has been used as an aid in resolving boundary disputes” between states, the high court held, according to a document Rep. Fincher provided.
James W. Ely, a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Virginia in an 1893 case. Virginia had argued a faulty 1803 survey cheated it of land now considered part of Tennessee.
Georgia officials can try to go to court, Dr. Ely said, but “realistically, what are the odds they (Supreme Court justices) are going to overturn a boundary which has been agreed upon and acted upon for a very, very long time period ... almost 200 years?”
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...