Tennessee Court of Appeals upholds dismissal of Democrats' 2018 ballot challenge to now-Rep. Smith

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Tennessee Rep. Robin Smith answers a question. Members of the Hamilton County legislative delegation spoke to the Times Free Press at the newspaper's offices on Nov. 15, 2019.

NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Court of Appeals has unanimously upheld Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton's dismissal of a 2018 lawsuit in which the state Democratic Party sought to knock then-Republican candidate Robin Smith off the ballot in the House District 26 contest.

In its unanimous decision, the appeals court ruled Friday the case was moot because of Smith's subsequent election. It was the fourth ruling at the trial and appellate court level in two lawsuits filed on the controversy.

In the opinion, written by Judge Richard Dinkins and joined by Judges John McClarty and D. Michael Swiney, the court stated, "we have concluded that the requests for injunctive relief are moot because the actions sought to be enjoined have occurred, and that the request for declaratory judgment is moot because Ms. Smith was listed on the ballot and subsequently elected.

"Further," the ruling added, "none of the exceptions to the mootness doctrine are present." The judges noted a "moot case is one that has lost its justiciability because it no longer involves a present, ongoing controversy."

The court also said it was denying a request for damages sought "for a frivolous appeal."

The controversy began when then-Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who had qualified to seek re-election, announced he was withdrawing from the Aug. 2, 2018, ballot in mid-June after the qualifying deadline and after Democrats had raised questions about his legal residency.

McCormick said a prospective employer wanted him to work full time in Nashville, which is one of the provisions in state law allowing someone to drop a candidacy after the qualifying deadline has passed. But Democrats had earlier charged McCormick and his wife had already purchased a home in Nashville and were trying to sell their home in Hixson.

After the Republican-controlled Hamilton County Election Commission approved Smith's coming onto the ballot, state Democrats sued both the local and state election commissions, first in Davidson County and then in Hamilton County, arguing the county panel should not have allowed Smith onto the ballot.

Smith, a former state Republican Party chairwoman, easily won the GOP primary in August as well as the general election that November.

In a statement Saturday, Smith called Democrats' lawsuit a "frivolous effort to disenfranchise thousands of District 26 voters. I have kept the faith that our courts and their wisdom would see this lawsuit for what it really was - a political gimmick by a desperate party. On Friday, my prayers were answered when [the court] threw out this lawsuit for the fourth, and hopefully, final time."

Smith also charged that Democrats' efforts were "nothing short of a coup" attempt, saying "not only did they want to remove me from office; they didn't want anyone to represent District 26." And she said the lawsuit "hurt real Tennesseans" because county and state election commissions spent thousands of taxpayer dollars as well as herself. "Lawsuits are not cheap, and defending politically inspired frivolous lawsuits is even more expensive," she added.

Smith hired attorney Ben M. Rose of Brentwood to represent her in various legal proceedings. The original lawsuit was filed in Davidson County and dismissed by a Davidson County chancellor who cited lack of jurisdiction. Democrats then re-filed the case in Hamilton County. Not long after that, Democrats' attorneys appealed the Davidson County chancellor's action to the Court of Appeals which they lost, according to court filings filed by Rose.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said it "remains the position of the Tennessee Democratic Party that the election was unlawfully conducted because Robin Smith did not follow the simple rules required to appear on the ballot."

Mancini also said in her statement the party "will not appeal the decision and [Smith] will have to live with a cloud of illegitimacy over her election. In the future, the TNDP will always do as much as we can to stand up for free and fair elections and to ensure that every Tennessean can have their voice heard and their vote count."

Prior to Mancini's comments, Smith's attorney, Rose, said, "we appreciate the time and attention paid to this case by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in reaching this unanimous verdict, and also to Chancellor Atherton for this thoughtful consideration of all the parties' arguments. While the appellate process is not yet complete, we are hopeful that the fourth dismissal of this case will be the final one."

Smith, meanwhile, said "someone should demand that the Tennessee Democratic Party reimburse the taxpayers. All political parties need to start accepting the results of elections and move on. We live in a democracy."

Contact Andy Sher at [email protected] or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.