Political Beat

On January 27, 2011, in News 2011, by Mark Norris

The Norris Interview II: The Senator Gives His Explanation of Why County Residents Should Vote on the MCS Charter Issue

Jackson Baker, Memphis Flyer
January 20, 2011

(Below are key excerpts from a Flyer interview with state Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville) conducted in Nashville in the course of last weekend’s gubernatorial-inauguration events there. These portions are an extension of a previously published report on that conversation with the state Senate’s majority leader.)

On the difference between geographical voting restrictions in 1996/97 and those of today.

The background: In 1996 a court order required that the Board positions for the Shelby County Schools be filled by popular election rather than through appointment by the Shelby County Commission, as had been customary. In commission debates about determining g the voter pool, Norris, then a commissioner representing suburban Shelby County, argued strongly that it would be unconstitutional and inappropriate for city voters to take part.

Inner-city commission members, like Julian Bolton, argued that, since residents of Memphis paid taxes that helped subsidize the county schools, they should be represented by district positions on the Board then being created and should be allowed to vote in county school board elections. Ultimately, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that only voters in the school district in question should vote and be represented on the county school board.

A key sentence in the Court’s decision was this one:

“The…problem…is the issue of whether the decision to expand the electorate to include out-of-district votes dilutes minority votes. Such a case would be presented, for example, if a city’s electorate was expanded to include white suburban or rural areas in order to prevent a black majority in an urban area from controlling their own local government.“

Since Norris now proposes that all county voters should take part in a referendum on the fate of the Memphis City Schools charter and has introduced pending legislation to that effect, he has been accused of hypocrisy. The following paragraphs constitute an answer to his critics:

Norris: They’re ignorant of the law. That’s not Mark Norris’ law….That’s the federal law. What I said then is equally true today. It’s derivative of Baker versus Carr. The analysis goes thus: In a referendum, which is not your routine commission, council, or legislative election…referenda in the eyes of the law have a special status. The question the court, if called upon to do so, asks, is, ‘What is the relevant jurisdiction?’ Quote unquote.

They do an analysis. [The late federal] Judge Jerome Turner did this is in the district court case in 1996. Board of Commissioners vs. Burson. Because at that point we had been left with the task of drawing the voting districts for the Shelby County School System after the law had changed, to elect the commissioners. We used to — the county commission previously had appointed them.

The law changed. The former commission required seven vacancies, or whatever…..We were tasked with the responsibility before the next general election to draw the voting districts. Julian Bolton and I came up with a process. He drew Plan B that was countywide, and it sort of looked like oven spokes or slices of pie. I think mine was Plan C. We agreed to go to court. To do so we adopted his plan. We adopted the countywide plan that people might talk about today.

We went to court. That plan was struck down as unconstitutional — on the grounds that, in a referendum …they did an analysis of the cash flow, the funding, the common programs, or lack thereof, the students, the system, and the court found that in order to meet the mandates of equal protection as enunciated in Baker vs. Carr, that the law protects the rights of the minority, and it does this in this case by avoiding what the court called ‘debasement.’

I can deprive you of your right to vote in several ways. It’s not just ‘one man, one vote.’ If your vote is so diluted as to be worth less than [another] vote, the court will look very carefully …That’s why the plan we had, to let everyone in the county vote, was struck down as unconstitutional, and I’m submitting to you that that’s what would happen today if the reverse is true — if you only allow one jurisdiction to vote where there are two relevant jurisdictions at stake, it’ll be struck down as well.

Norris was asked: Isn’t that a paradoxical position (in light of the court statement quoted above)?

Norris: You have to get your head around that. It’s an inversion, but it’s the same principle… I understand that there’s an Attorney General’s opinion dealing with who is eligible to vote under [Section] 502, and the Attorney General says, well, Memphians are eligible. The Attorney General’s opinion of January 10 does not say “and no one else.” I can show you. The rule of books is that, well, 502 is silent as to who gets to vote. It just says a majority of those voting in the referendum. That’s Section 502, and that’s the only one now that, as I understand it, Memphis City Schools is relying on….

The Senate Bill 25 that I’ve introduced [providing for dual city and county votes] needs to proceed forward. That’s the current law. It is the law. People need to realize this.

 

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