Election /

Tennesseans File Federal Lawsuit Challenging Residency Requirement Legislation

Plaintiffs argue the bill would violate the U.S. Constitution

Three residents of Tennessee filed a lawsuit challenging legislation that would require congressional candidates to have resided in the state for three years to be eligible for the position.

The bill, Senate Bill 2616, was passed by the Tennesee General Assembly this week. It was sent on April 1 to Governor Bill Lee, who has 10 days to review and either sign or veto the bill. 

On March 31, Barbra Collins, Amy Dudley and Donald Sobery filed a lawsuit in a federal court in Nashville arguing the bill would violate the U.S. Constitution, which lists three requirements to be elected to a federal office: a candidate must be at least 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for the last seven years, and inhabit the state from which they would be elected. The document does not say how long a person would need to have lived in the state.

The plaintiffs say the law excludes Morgan Ortagus, a former state department spokesperson and their preferred candidate, from running in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. 

Ortagus, who did not establish residency in the state until November 2021, has been endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

“If this Provision is enforced and allowed to proceed, Ortagus would no longer be eligible to represent the Fifth Congressional District and would be required to suspend her campaign, thereby robbing Plaintiffs of the opportunity to vote for their candidate of choice in the August 4, 2022 Republican primary,” the lawsuit states, per The Tennessean

The suit names Tennessee and Secretary of State Trey Hargett as defendants.

If SB 2616 becomes law, Ortagus could purportedly still run as an independent because the law only applies to primaries.

Senator Frank Niceley, the bill’s sponsor, said in a committee meeting that “the Supreme Court today would rule in our favor.”

“That’s why we put it in the primary. We aren’t stopping anyone from running,” said Niceley. “The word primary is not mentioned in the Constitution.”

According to the bill: 

a person is not eligible to qualify as a candidate for United States senator unless the person has been a resident of this state at least three years prior to the date of the election in which the person seeks to qualify as a candidate. [To be] eligible to qualify as a candidate for member of the United States House of Representatives, [an individual must have] been a resident of this state and the district the person seeks to represent for at least three years prior to the date of the election in which the person seeks to qualify as a candidate.”

However, Ronald Chen, the Distinguished Professor of Law and Judge Leonard I. Garth Scholar at Rutgers Law School, says states are not afforded the ability to impose their own qualification for officials elected to a federal office.

“This law is very shaky on constitutional grounds,” Chen told Timcast. “Basically, the qualifications of a member of congress or a senator are laid out in the Consitution and that’s it. The argument that … this doesn’t count because this is only primaries — the court has to address arguments like that as well.”

“Primaries for the two major political parties are so intertwined with court-governmental function that they are not going to be able to argue that this is private conduct,” Chen said. “You are using the apparatus of state government — the election machinery — and therefore the constitutional restrictions that govern the states govern you as well.”

Chen also noted that the lawsuit should have been filed after Lee signed SB 2616.

“Technically — technically — the judge should dismiss the case and tell them to refile if and when the governor signs the bill,” Chen said. “It is not a huge issue. If it gets dismissed, they could refile when the governor signs the bill.”

Incumbent members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation or anyone elected prior to the date SB 2616 becomes effective are exempt from the residency requirement.

Candidates have until noon on April 7 to file for office.

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