Vivian Jones / The Center Square (Tennessee)
(The Center Square) – A grassroots nonprofit has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statute that granted Gov. Bill Lee extensive emergency powers and the ability to delegate such powers to local leaders.
The group, Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, also known as Tennessee Stands, filed suit against Lee on Monday, claiming the statute permitting Lee’s unchecked emergency powers is unconstitutional.
“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 complaint reads.
The Tennessee attorney general’s office is aware of the lawsuit but has not been served, Communications Director Samantha Fischer confirmed to The Center Square.
Under Tennessee Code Annotated 58-2-107, state law permits governors to “assume direct operational control” over emergency management functions in the state without oversight by the legislature, and authorizes the governor “to delegate such powers as the governor may deem prudent.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Tennessee in March, Lee declared a state of emergency and has issued 44 executive orders, including one delegating power to county mayors to require use of face masks in their counties to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We cannot go down the road of authorizing tyrannical behavior, even for good reasons,” the plaintiff’s attorney, Gary Blackburn, told The Center Square. “TCA 58-2-107 extends to the governor authority that the constitution does not permit, and, therefore, he cannot extend that authority to any third party or local government entity.”
Blackburn said the way the law is written, Tennessee governors have the power to declare a state of emergency without review of the Tennessee Legislature, to extend it indefinitely without review of the Legislature, and to contradict or rescind standing laws or local ordinances in the interest of responding to an emergency.
“Here is the question: can a governor, for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all, simply declare himself to possess limitless powers?” Blackburn said.
Blackburn said the lawsuit is not a criticism of Lee’s actions during the pandemic but rather a safeguard against the legal structure that has the potential to be abused by future governors.
“Gov. Lee is a decent, well-intentioned man, but we have had scoundrels as governors in the past, and given the human condition, we will have scoundrels again in the future,” Blackburn said. “We cannot tolerate abuse of power, even for motives that are appropriate.”
Blackburn anticipates the lawsuit ultimately will be decided in appellate courts.
Lee’s office did not respond to a request for comment.