NASHVILLE — Positions taken by the Tennessee and Georgia legislatures over the years sometimes were at odds with lawmakers’ current-day stances on an old dispute over the states’ boundary, records show.
Georgia lawmakers, who are trying to reopen a controversy over an erroneous 1818 survey that set today’s border, say Peach State officials always have rejected and never officially accepted the boundary.
But records and news accounts show the Georgia House of Representatives only 36 years ago acknowledged the very same border lawmakers reject today.
“(M)embers of this body do hereby go on record as approving the boundary line currently recognized as such between the State of Georgia and the State of Tennessee, in the Chattanooga area,” states House Resolution 907, which passed 116-12 on March 8, 1972, according to Volume II of the Journal of the House of Representatives from that year.
In an e-mail, Georgia Sen. David Shafer, R-Duluth, who is pushing the latest look at the border issue, dismissed the Georgia House’s 1972 resolution, sponsored by then-Rep. Robert Peters, a Catoosa County Democrat.
“The 1972 resolution was never passed by the Senate or signed by the governor,” said Sen. Shafer, who argues Georgia’s border properly lies about 1.1 miles north of where it is today. “It does not have the force of law. The erroneous boundary line remains unratified.”
Atlanta attorney Brad Carver, who helped author a “white paper” for Georgia lawmakers on the border issue called “Tapping the Tennessee River at Georgia’s Northwest Corner: A Solution to North Georgia’s Water Supply Crisis,” agreed.
“(Neither) the Senate nor governor approved that House resolution,” he said in an e-mail. “The 35th parallel is still the State of Georgia’s legal boundary since the Georgia General Assembly has never ratified the incorrect survey.”
For their part, Tennessee lawmakers today argue the border is exactly where it should be, and they contend Georgia’s effort is little more than an attempt to gain access to the Tennessee River. The disputed area includes part of that river at Nickajack Lake in Marion County.
On Monday, the Tennessee House voted 91-0 for a resolution stating Tennessee would not participate in a boundary commission that the Georgia House and Senate approved last month in separate resolutions.
But in 1889 and again in 1905, Volunteer State lawmakers appeared more amenable to Georgia’s complaints.
“Whereas, There are grave doubts as to the location of the state line,” is the beginning of an act passed by the Tennessee General Assembly on April 3, 1889. The law authorized the governor to communicate with Georgia’s governor “for the purpose of having a joint survey looking to the settlement of the question in dispute.”
Legislation in 1905 said much the same, but no new survey appears to have ever been undertaken.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, who would lose part of his city if the boundary was pegged at the 35th parallel, first brought up the 1972 Georgia House resolution. His office cited news accounts of the House action in The Chattanooga Times.
Mayor Littlefield, who said he doesn’t take the Georgia actions seriously, noted he would “certainly hate to go to court and have someone produce this same document ... that it had been considered before by people in elected positions and authority and they had decided that the matter was resolved.”
Georgia lawmakers have said they might take the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has original jurisdiction over boundary disputes, if Tennessee fails to act.
Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, an attorney who is expected to handle the Tennessee House resolution in the Senate, said “citizens of Georgia, mapmakers and anyone who has taken geography in the last 200 years knows where the border between Georgia and Tennessee is.”
Tennessee Rep. Henry Fincher, D-Cookeville, who helped draw up legal portions of Tennessee’s resolution, chuckled when shown the Georgia resolution.
He said Georgia lawmakers long ago legally acquiesced to the current border and Peach State lawmakers in 1972 “very wisely and reasonably recognized it had been the boundary so long it needed to be the boundary.
“It just goes to show that folks were smarter in Georgia in 1972 than they apparently are in 2008 — at least as far as the legislature is concerned,” Rep. Fincher said.
As to whether Tennessee lawmakers’ actions back in 1889 and 1905 created problems for Volunteer State officials today, Rep. Fincher said, “I don’t think so. Again, with these things, nothing happened. Nothing ever changed.”
Georgia Sen. Shafer disagreed, noting that “it is ridiculous to suggest that this issue has been settled for 190 years. Tennessee itself has repeatedly acknowledged that the boundary line is wrongly marked and must be resurveyed.”
Staff writer Michael Davis contributed to this story.
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, ...