Tennessee political protection racket – WSJ


State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus attends a press conference at the State Department on June 24, 2020.


Photo:

Mandel Ngan/Associated Press

The deadline for submitting nominations for a U.S. House seat in Tennessee is next week, but on Monday the state legislature moved to change the rules by creating a three-year residency requirement. The bill is a blatant attempt to weed out a foreign candidate backed by President Trump, and it could be unconstitutional.

Morgan Ortagus worked as Mr. Trump’s State Department spokesperson before moving to Nashville in 2021. After lawmakers drew new political maps this year, Rep. Jim Cooper, the incumbent Democrat from the 5th District, decided to withdraw from Congress. The race to replace him includes a herd of Republicans, including Ms. Ortagus.

Mrs. Ortagus is not originally from Tennessee, but neither are many of her neighbors. The population of the Nashville metropolitan area grew by 21% between 2010 and 2020, as newcomers poured into the state without income tax. Voters can decide if Ms Ortagus is a baggage handler and if they care.

Still, lawmakers want to preemptively narrow people’s options by disqualifying anyone who hasn’t lived in Tennessee for three years. One of the bill’s sponsors, State Senator Frank Niceley, is supporting another candidate, former State House Speaker Beth Harwell, according to NBC. “I will vote for Trump as long as he lives,” he said. “But I don’t want him coming here to tell me who to vote for.”

It sucks, whatever you think of Mr. Trump. State lawmakers want to help an insider candidate by blocking an outsider from the ballot. Worse, they do it in the middle of the campaign, a few days before the filing deadline. Governor Bill Lee’s office says it is “still reviewing” the legislation. Tennessee has a weak veto, so the legislature could override it with a simple majority.

A trial of voters from Mrs. Ortagus’ camp is likely, and that’s where the plot thickens. The US Constitution states that a member of the House must be 25 years old, have been a US citizen for seven years, and be a resident of the state they represent. That’s it. States have tried to limit the terms of their congressional delegations before, but the Supreme Court said no in a 1995 case, US Term Limits v. Thornton. “Allowing individual states to create their own qualifications for Congress,” the majority said, “would erode the structure envisioned by the framers.”

Tennessee might answer that Thornton was a 5-4 decision, and the Court changed. “Nothing in the Constitution,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent, “deprives the people of each state of the power to prescribe eligibility requirements for candidates seeking to represent them in Congress. The Constitution is simply silent on this issue. If a petition came in, would Judge Thomas ask his colleagues to drop Thornton?

This is a fascinating legal question. But what is happening in Tennessee this week is not a scientific case for restoring the state’s electoral powers. It’s a dirty example of insiders deciding they want to keep political positions in the club.

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