Aug 2, 2023 - Politics

New Nashville mayor could shift legal battle lines with the state

Illustration of two gavels in a dueling position.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The next two-and-a-half months will determine the future of Metro's aggressive legal strategy challenging a slate of new state laws targeting Nashville.

  • Key upcoming hearings could determine if two major lawsuits are successful. And the election will have strategic implications as well.

Why it matters: A new mayor will take office after the Sept. 14 runoff and walk into a legal cage match with the state government.

  • Immediately, they'll have to choose who will serve in the vital role of legal director. That will determine whether the city continues to fight the state in court.

Driving the news: Under the direction of legal director Wally Dietz, Metro filed three lawsuits challenging new state laws affecting Nashville.

What he's saying: Dietz tells Axios that Nashville residents have thanked him for leaning into the legal fight with the state. He said he's been stopped in the grocery store, at restaurants and in a cigar shop.

  • "Metro's lawsuits have demonstrated to the legislature that they do not have carte blanche to micromanage Metro Nashville," Dietz said.

The intrigue: Tensions with the state have been a dominant theme in the wide-open mayor's race. Candidates have debated the best strategy for defending city interests while also trying to repair fractured relationships with top Republican leaders.

Although he didn't indicate a preferred candidate, Dietz says the election will shape the city's legal strategy. "[The new] mayor will determine who the law director is, and whether that person is willing to continue these fights. So I think it matters a lot who the next mayor is," Dietz says.

Between the lines: In all three suits, the city has argued the state violated the Tennessee constitution by illegally singling out Nashville with the new laws.

  • The city scored a significant victory in the lawsuit over the council size when a panel of judges blocked the law from taking effect before the August election.
  • Metro is pressing on with its challenge of the overall law, but the soonest a 20-member council will be in effect is 2027.

The latest: On Monday, a three-judge panel rejected Metro's request for a temporary injunction to keep the former city-appointed airport board of directors in place.

  • But the judges made clear that they were not making any determination on the merits of the city's overall lawsuit.

What's next: A hearing is scheduled next week in the city's lawsuit over the racetrack improvement vote threshold.

  • The city's charter says 27 council votes were needed, but a state law reduced the requirement to 21 votes.
  • The next hearing in the challenge over the airport board is Oct. 6. A hearing date has not been set for the challenge over the size of the council.

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