Few would disagree that the government shouldn’t be permitted to act illegally. In a frighteningly large number of instances, though—due to outmoded doctrines like sovereign immunity, qualified immunity, and absolute immunity for certain government officials—the government can act illegally without experiencing legal consequences for doing so. The result of that legal construct is that government officials are often free to violate state statutes or provisions of the Tennessee Constitution and the U.S. Constitution without risk, leaving those who are victimized by governmental misconduct unable to do anything about it.
Happily, in 2018, the Tennessee General Assembly enacted a little-noticed law that has had profound practical effects. Codified at Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121, it provides that:
“Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, a cause of action shall exist under this chapter for any affected person who seeks declaratory or injunctive relief in any action brought regarding the legality or constitutionality of a governmental action. A cause of action shall not exist under this chapter to seek damages.”
As a result of Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121, it is now possible for victims of governmental misconduct in Tennessee to obtain certain forms of relief—specifically, declaratory judgments and injunctions—regarding illegal or unconstitutional governmental actions. And obtain relief under Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 they have. As a few examples:
1. Tennessee’s Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, Registry of Election Finance has been permanently enjoined from enforcing an unconstitutional law that allowed partisan political action committees to participate in the political process just before an election, while prohibiting non-partisan political action committees from doing the same.
2. Metro Nashville and its ex-Director of Schools have been permanently enjoined from enforcing a contractual gag order against dissenting School Board Members that prevented them from criticizing the ex-Director of Schools—a provision that was also declared illegal as a violation of the First Amendment and multiple state provisions.
3. A criminal law that exclusively prohibited “false” statements about political candidates—including satire and parody—in campaign literature has been declared unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
4. The Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners has been permanently enjoined from enforcing a law that prevented a man from working as a barber solely because he did not have a high school diploma. And:
5. The State of Tennessee has been permanently enjoined from implementing a selectively-targeted school voucher law in violation of the Home Rule provision of the Tennessee Constitution.
These examples are not exhaustive. For example, a lawsuit is presently pending under Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 to enjoin notorious private prison operator CoreCivic from systematically refusing to maintain a constitutionally adequate level of inmate safety and systematically failing to provide inmates constitutionally adequate health care at its scandal-prone Trousdale Turner Correctional Center. Additionally, even failed lawsuits—like a lawsuit filed by the Tennessee Democratic Party and U.S. Senate candidate Marquita Bradshaw regarding public records access—have been adjudicated on their merits due to Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121, rather than being dismissed upfront based on the premise that the government cannot be sued at all.
All of this is great news if you believe that the government should be held accountable for breaking the law. To be sure, though, enacting Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 should not actually have been necessary. At least since the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision in Colonial Pipeline Company v. Morgan—a 2008 opinion addressing litigants’ right to sue the government for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding constitutional violations—it has been clear that “sovereign immunity simply does not apply to a declaratory judgment action challenging the constitutionality of a statute against state officers.” That decision, however, did not stop Tennessee’s flagrantly dishonest and democracy-hating Attorney General from arguing that the Tennessee Supreme Court’s decision should be ignored and that such claims should be disallowed anyway. Thus, the General Assembly felt compelled to make clear, beyond any serious dispute, through Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 that: “Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, a cause of action shall exist under this chapter for any affected person who seeks declaratory or injunctive relief in any action brought regarding the legality or constitutionality of a governmental action.” Remarkably, the Attorney General’s Office continues to argue that such lawsuits still should not be allowed regardless of what Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 unambiguously says on the matter. Unsurprisingly, those arguments have not proven successful.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 also falls short in a critical respect. In particular, it makes clear that “[a] cause of action shall not exist under this chapter to seek damages.” Consequently, because damages generally are not allowed in Tennessee for state constitutional or statutory violations under any other provision, either, many individuals who are deprived of their rights or injured by illegal governmental conduct are left without a complete remedy. Thus, to ensure that the government can be held fully accountable and deprived of any incentive to act illegally, there remains work left to be done to vindicate the Tennessee Constitution’s still-illusory guarantee that: “All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him, in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law.”
Nonetheless, it is clear at this point that Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-121 has ushered in a new era of governmental accountability across Tennessee. Thus, to everyone except government officials who behave illegally: Happy 1-3-121 Day to you and yours.
 When pressed during oral argument on the issue in the past, the Office of the Attorney General has been somewhat more candid about its actual position on the matter: It believes that “Colonial Pipeline was wrongfully decided,” and that it “is an overbroad decision.” See Transcript of Aug. 17, 2018 Hearing in Zarate v. The Tennessee Board of Cosmetology and Barber Examiners, Davidson County Chancery Court Case No. 18-534-II, p. 11, lines 9–13.