NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday sought to downplay two conservative groups' lawsuit challenging his legal authority to delegate executive powers to county mayors to combat the coronavirus, saying he and others believe he stands on firm legal ground.
"We worked really hard to make sure our decision-making process falls within the authority that's given to the governor constitutionally and our statute," Lee told reporters Tuesday, the day after two groups filed suit charging he has constitutionally and legally overstepped his authority.
Lee noted that Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery as well as former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice William Koch agree with his position.
Slatery has said in formal legal opinions that a measure passed by state lawmakers two decades ago gives the governor broad powers to deal with emergencies. Gonzales and Koch agreed in testimony last week to an ad hoc legislative committee that is looking into the issue.
Asked what his actions would be if courts were to rule in favor of Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity Inc.'s lawsuit, the Republican governor replied "Hypothetical? We'll pass that bridge when and if we have to."
Lee has given mayors in all of Tennessee's 95 counties leeway to implement restrictions such as mask-wearing mandates to battle the virus' spread. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, also a Republican, is one of a number of mayors who have issued mandates to wear masks.
"We have every reason to believe that the decisions that are made, as I've said, are constitutionally sound," Lee said. "And I also have every reason to believe that Tennesseans will keep doing what they need to do. Because it's personal responsibility protecting their own health and the health of others around them and protecting the economy around them as well."
Lee's ability to delegate the authority under the Tennessee Constitution and a law passed back in 2000 is now being put to a legal test.
Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity Inc., along with two individuals, charge in their lawsuit that "however well-intentioned the delegation of power may have been, it is nonetheless illegal and unconstitutional and must be declared void.
"It is during times of emergency that our courts must endeavor to ensure that our constitutional rights are not diminished by arbitrary and capricious exercise of authority," the filing in Davidson County Chancery Court states.
Lee is now caught between the conservative groups and more liberal critics who charge he has not acted strongly enough. They want him to issue a statewide mask requirement, instead of allowing a patchwork based on local decisions.
Back in the spring, Lee faced a growing rebellion from a group of conservative district attorneys general, some of whom stated publicly they would not prosecute several of his orders shuttering many businesses, including bars and limiting restaurant crowds.
Lee subsequently lifted directives such as a modified stay-at-home order and later began outsourcing the decisions to county leaders, saying they were in the best position to know what was needed in their communities in urban, suburban and rural settings.
"I think giving local leaders the authority to institute what's best for their communities, that's been my approach from the beginning," Lee said Tuesday. "It appears to be working.
"But mask requirements are not what's going to solve the problem," Lee said. "To solve the problem is behavior, that's what solves the problem." He added: "I believe that Tennesseans know that's what we have to keep doing, and I believe that's the solution."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.