In a decision issued earlier this morning, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit formally upheld Tennesseans’ 2014 vote to ratify Amendment 1 to the Tennessee Constitution. The amendment provided that:
“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion. The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and state senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
Following the referendum election—which Tennesseans supported by a margin of 53%-47% in a contest involving nearly 1.4 million voters—opponents of the amendment challenged the results of the election in federal court, arguing that state officials should have disqualified the votes of anyone who declined to vote in the Governor’s race. The challengers’ claim was premised upon a reading of an inartfully drafted provision of Tennessee’s Constitution, which states that:
“[I]f the people shall approve and ratify such amendment or amendments by a
majority of all the citizens of the State voting for Governor, voting in their favor,
such amendment or amendments shall become a part of this Constitution.”
Although initially accepted by the now-vacated decision of the District Court, the challengers’ reading of the above provision had several critical problems. Among them, the novel interpretation that they demanded had never previously been applied in any referendum election in Tennessee’s history. Most importantly, however, as the Yes On 1 Committee argued in an amicus brief filed in the Sixth Circuit, the challengers’ position would have unconstitutionally caused “the votes of tens of thousands of qualified voters—as many as eighty thousand, by some estimates—[to] be subject to wholesale invalidation for no other reason than that the voters who cast them did not support any candidate for governor.” The same deficiency was noted in an editorial penned by Daniel Horwitz, Yes On 1’s eventual election counsel, in a 2014 op ed published in the Tennessean.
The Sixth Circuit’s opinion held that for purposes of the federal lawsuit, a separate state court decision that had previously determined that all votes in a referendum election must be counted regardless of whether or not a voter had voted in the Governor’s race was entitled to preclusive effect. In a footnote, however, the Sixth Circuit also explained that it would have reached the same conclusion independently, noting that:
“[P]laintiffs’ preferred reading of the text of Article XI, Section 3, while not implausible on its face, would be patently unreasonable in effect. Not only would their proposed construction—requiring a voter to vote for governor as a prerequisite to casting a valid vote on Amendment 1—contravene longstanding practice and pre-election instructions published to the public, and effectively nullify the votes of thousands of citizens; it would also conflict with another provision of the Tennessee Constitution. Article IV, Section 1 prohibits the imposition of any additional qualification to vote, beyond age, U.S. citizenship, state residency, and registration. To adopt plaintiffs’ proposed interpretation would be to run afoul of our obligation, in construing state law, “to avoid constitutional difficulty” when fairly possible.”
“The issues involved in this lawsuit had absolutely nothing to do with abortion,” said Daniel Horwitz, election counsel for the Yes On 1 Campaign. “Instead, this was a direct challenge to pro-life voters’ right to vote itself, and fortunately, the right to vote won. Anybody who cares about the integrity of the democratic process should be both gratified and reassured by this outcome.”
The Sixth Circuit’s decision in the case is available here.
Selected Case Documents:
Selected Media Coverage:
-The Tennessean: Amendment 1 plaintiffs on shaky legal ground
-News Channel 5: Vote Counting For Tennessee Abortion Measure Argued In Federal Court