MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A second lawsuit has been filed against the Shelby County Election Commission concerning a residency requirement for the upcoming Memphis mayoral race.
Friday, March 17, 2023, Memphis NAACP President and Mayoral candidate Van Turner filed a lawsuit asking for "clarity and an injunction from the court." In the suit, Turner asks for an injunction from the courts to prohibit the election commission from enforcing the residency requirement for the upcoming Memphis mayoral election.
This comes after Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner filed a similar lawsuit Tuesday, March 14, also against the Shelby County Election Commission.
The lawsuits both name the election commission members and Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips as defendants.
The lawsuits were filed after a recent legal opinion that a five-year residency requirement remains in effect for Memphis mayoral candidates after changes to ordinances over the years.
How it all began
Questions arose last year about where some of the Memphis mayoral candidates reside. Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, lived in Bartlett and his lawsuit said he is a current resident of Memphis. Former county commissioner Van Turner, who announced his run in September, recently moved to Binghampton.
According to the sheriff's lawsuit filed Tuesday, March 14, 2023, City of Memphis Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Sink requested an opinion from attorney Robert Meyers. It said on Feb. 28, 2023, Meyers' opinion was sent to Sink, concluding the residency requirement remains in place, and candidates must have lived in Memphis for five-years to run for mayor.
In a previous opinion dated Nov. 2, 2022, and made public Nov. 9, Allan Wade - a private attorney who also works for the city council and Shelby County Election Commission - told the Election Commission that they should not refuse a candidate’s petition based on residency. He said the requirement is that whoever serves as Memphis mayor must live in the city, but they don’t have to live in the city when running for the office.
The sheriff's lawsuit claims after the most recent Feb. 2023 opinion, the Election Commission added language on its website that candidates must be a resident of the city for five years preceding the election, and linked to Meyers' opinion.
Bonner campaign statement
Bonner’s campaign released this statement following the filing of the lawsuit Tuesday: “The Bonner campaign filed suit in chancery court this morning and is seeking declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. The latest opinion is politically motivated and legally flawed and won’t slow down Floyd Bonner. It is unquestionable that Floyd Bonner is the most experienced candidate to tackle crime in Memphis, and we won’t let back room deals take away the people’s right to vote for change.”
Candidates running for Memphis mayor in 2023:
- Memphis businessman and former Shelby County Commissioner JW Gibson
- Former Memphis Mayor Dr. Willie Herenton
- City Councilman Frank Colvett, Jr.
- Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) Chairwoman Michelle McKissack
- Democratic State Rep. Karen Camper
- Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner
- Downtown Memphis Commission CEO Paul Young
- Memphis NAACP President Van Turner
Incumbent Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is term-limited and cannot seek reelection for a third term.
What the Election Commission, other candidates are saying
After the announcement of Bonner's lawsuit, Turner told ABC24, “We would likely seek to join the lawsuit ... If we feel that there are probably some other points that need to be brought forward and that those points can be brought forward in a second lawsuit and then you combine the two in one action, then that will be the course of action we take.”
While Bonner’s campaign said the issue is politically motivated, Shelby County Administrator of Elections, Linda Phillips, said exactly the opposite on Tuesday.
“This was not motivated by any political action,” Phillips said. “It’s just that we as the election commission are obliged to follow the opinion of the city attorney because they are the authority for interpreting the city charter and we had an opinion of course from the city councils attorney but that’s not quite the same thing.”
Turner also believes the election commission's requests for additional opinions were politically motivated and unfair.
“It’s a small group of individuals who want to have a say over the elections and how the elections for council and mayor will roll out, and they are taking this privilege and this right away from the citizens of Memphis,” Turner said before filing his lawsuit.
ABC24 reached out to former mayor and current candidate Willie Herenton, who could also be impacted by this legal ruling. He did not respond, but political analysts said whether he and Turner add on to the lawsuit or not, likely won’t make a difference in the judge's ruling.
“The judge is going to make his or her decision based solely on that and not on how many lawsuits are filed, who’s involved – it’s not going to make any difference at all,” political analyst Otis Sanford said.
Even with all the back and forth, everyone involved expects a decision to be made before the first key election date in May.
The qualifying deadline for Memphis mayor is July 20, 2023, at noon.
The Memphis Municipal Elections are set for Oct. 5, 2023, with early voting to begin Sept. 15. The election includes the mayoral race, as well as Memphis City Council positions and Memphis Court Clerk. If necessary, a run-off will be held on Nov. 16.
The voter registration deadline is Sept. 5. For information on how to register, go to https://www.electionsshelbytn.gov/register-vote.
For more information from the Shelby County Election Commission on upcoming elections, go to https://www.electionsshelbytn.gov/.