Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) checks his phone while debate rages on the Senate floor. / Larry McCormack /The Tennessean
The Tennessee House of Representatives rejected a plan to redraw the state's judicial districts, dealing a rebuke to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey on what is expected to be the last day of the legislative session.
The House voted 66-28 to defeat a proposal to eliminate two judicial districts statewide and reconfigure six others. The lopsided margin on a measure closely identified with the Senate leader surprised many in the crowd.
The vote also could jeopardize legislation giving the State Board of Education the power to issue binding decisions on charter school applications. That bill appears to have become linked to the judicial redistricting measure, with the Senate refusing to take up Speaker Beth Harwell's signature issue until the House approved Ramsey's judicial plan.
Ramsey has pushed judicial redistricting throughout the session, arguing that the current system is too expensive and displays the hallmarks of political compromises made in the early 1980s, when the current system was set.
Ramsey unveiled a plan in March that called for reducing the number of districts from 31 to 29 by eliminating districts that primarily served rural areas. Senate Bill 780 also would have redrawn districts affecting 22 of the state's 95 counties.
The lieutenant governor secured support from much of the legal establishment, including the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Tennessee Bar Association.
But it faced stiff opposition in the House. That set up a hostage situation between the two chambers, with Ramsey holding onto the charter authorizer in the Senate while judicial redistricting's supporters in the House worked to bring that measure to the floor.
At a caucus meeting prior to the vote, state Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, laid out his case for the measure, previewing his remarks later on the floor. Republican leaders gave opponents of the bill a few minutes to speak as well before urging them to vote how they saw fit on the House floor.
The debate centered not on judicial redistricting itself but on the way the plan had been developed.
Several members, most representing rural areas, complained that the House had not been given any chance to craft the proposal. They also chafed over Ramsey's decision to set a deadline at the beginning of session for adjourning by April 19, today.
"We are the people's chamber. They are the other chamber," said state Rep. Bill Sanderson, R-Kenton. "Vote no on the bill. Because it's not our bill."
Two-thirds of the members did. The margin was great enough to permit opponents to file a motion that not only would kill the measure but prevent Ramsey or any other lawmaker from pursuing it next year as well.
Over in the Senate, Ramsey responded by delaying the charter authorizer bill sought by Harwell, R-Nashville, indefinitely. Hours after the vote Friday, the measure still had not been brought up. Members idled at their desks awaiting the end of session.