TN Politics: On Forrest and Vouchers, Republicans and Courts Differ

Jun 4, 2021

At Health Sciences Park, workers chip away at the base of the monument to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest on Friday, June. 4, 2021.
Credit Christopher Blank/WKNO-FM

Republican lawmakers may have a supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, but their attempts to impose right-wing ideology on left-wing counties have occasionally met resistance from an unusual source -- the state's conservative courts.

Checks and balances came into play during the City of Memphis's efforts to remove Confederate iconography from its civic landscape. In 2017, activists focused on the equestrian statue and gravesite of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave owner and Ku Klux Klan figurehead. The state's historical commission had been dragging out the process to even consider a move, conducting hearings in distant counties where opponents had to drive hours to speak. 

Furthermore, Republicans had passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act and additional laws to ensure that the white supremicist icon would remain standing in a majority Black city. In a swift and coordinated operation, the City of Memphis sold the park around the statue to a nonprofit organization, which opened a legal loophole for city leaders to remove the statue. They did so within hours of the property transfer. The courts stood by the city's tactic, and more than four years later, the remainder of the monument is being relocated to Columbus, Tenn.

Now, the Tennessee Supreme Court has taken up the question of school vouchers, otherwise known as the Education Savings Account Act. Republicans disliked the bill almost as much as Democrats, but after negotiation resulted in vouchers only being imposed on two Democrat-controlled counties, Shelby and Davidson, the law squeaked through. Appeals courts found that state lawmakers are constitutionally prohibited from passing laws directed at specific counties unless representatives from those counties agreed. 

Political analyst Otis Sanford says that while the state courts are far from diverse, the justices tend to be more moderate than the legislature, which has been moving further to the right.