Yesterday, Davidson Chancery Court Judge Russell Perkins heard the arguments regarding disqualified 5th district US Congressional Republican candidate Robby Starbuck’s case against the Tennessee Republican Party (TRP) and the TRP State Executive Committee (SEC). The civil lawsuit filed by Starbuck against the party called for a temporary injunction to void the decisions made during an SEC board meeting where three Republican party candidates (Robby Starbuck included) were disqualified from the 2022 August Republican primary ballot.
The backbone of his case relied heavily upon the notion that the TRP violated its own bylaws. When looking at the actual wording within the TRP’s bylaws, it is clear that it didn’t. Even if Judge Perkins finds a problem with the lack of transparency during the SEC meeting and grants a temporary injunction to void their decision, it will come at a cost and create an entirely new precedent that will have implications for Freedom of Association rights. It also doesn't guarantee that the State Election Commission (who prepares the ballots for the primary election) will violate its own protocol and reinstate Robby Starbuck to the ballot in time for the August primary election, regardless of such a ruling. What seems more likely to come from this lawsuit is Tennessee Republican Party infighting regarding protocol, power and the hierarchy within the local ranks.
Below, we lay out the details of yesterday’s hearing.
A team of lawyers from the Sherard Roe Voigt & Harbison firm represented Starbuck and presented his case. Citing Tennessee Sunshine Laws, the team’s main argument revolved around the fact that the final SEC meeting held to vote on Robby Starbuck’s (as well as Morgan Ortagus’ and Baxter Lee’s) bona fide status was done behind closed doors. Their claim was that the SEC board was acting as the State Primary Board and must adhere to the state’s Sunshine Laws (meaning that the meeting must be open to the public) as stated in their bylaws and by the laws of the state of Tennessee.
Starbuck’s team further pointed out that despite not meeting the requirement of having voted in 3 of the last 4 Republican primaries, he did have multiple endorsement letters from chairmen and women of county Republican committees in district 5. They further argued that the SEC board members went against their own bylaws by voting to disqualify Starbuck since the bylaws state that they must take into account whether or not a candidate is qualified by way of being “vouched for as a bona fide Republican by an officer of the TRP or a member of the CEC, excluding SEC members, of the County and/or District where said individual resides.”
THE DEFENDANT’S ARGUMENTS
The Tennessee Republican Party and the TRP’s State Executive Committee were represented by Joshua A. Mullen. When addressing the claim that Tennessee’s Sunshine Laws were violated during the closed SEC meeting, Mullen points out that the SEC was not acting as the State Primary Board. He went on to point out that the State Primary Board has a completely different set of duties regarding the outcome of a primary race (as stated in the TRP’s bylaws) and the claim that the SEC was acting as the State Primary Board during the meeting, therefore violating Sunshine Laws, was void. According to Mullen’s arguments, the SEC members operated within the rules of their bylaws when they held the private meeting to vote on the bona fide status of Starbuck and the other candidates who challenged their disqualification.
Mullen went on to argue that though Starbuck was claiming he was not seeking a court ruling to restore his bona fide status and reinstate his name to the ballot, his request to void the decision made by the SEC members with an injunction would do just that. He continued that if the judge granted Starbuck’s request for a temporary injunction, it would force the SEC to overturn its own decision by order of the court and infringe upon the SEC member’s Constitutional rights.
Mullen then broke down Starbuck’s argument that his vouchers were enough to certify his bona fide status. Mullen stated that the actual language in the bylaws gives SEC members the authority to make their decision based on their own discretion and to their own satisfaction. Therefore, the bylaws do not state that vouchers are a distinctly irrefutable means to qualify a candidate as bona fide.
THE JUDGE WILL RELEASE HIS ORDERS TODAY
Judge Perkins closed the hearing by commending both sides for their clear and intelligent arguments. He then stated that, due to the time sensitivity of the matter, he would present his order sometime today.
- Starbuck’s team made the argument that qualifying for bona fide status (according to the TRP bylaw rule that each candidate must have voted in 3 of the last 4 state Republican primaries) was impossible for a candidate, such as himself, who had just moved to Tennessee on August 5th of 2020. The defendant's lawyer rebutted this claim by stating that the TRP and SEC members recognized and took into account the two primaries that Starbuck voted in when he was living out of state, but that Starbuck did not vote in either of the two Tennessee primaries he was present for as a state resident; An action that would have granted him bona fide status without further review.
- Starbuck’s team asked for a swift decision from the judge due to the fact that the State Election Commission of Tennessee stated that they would be able to include a reinstated candidate on the August 2022 primary ballot if the TRP’s decision to disqualify a candidate was redacted by June 10th. Mullen, the TRP’s lawyer, pointed out that the Election Commission’s statement was made by the state during the hearing in the previous court case where the state was also a defendant (they were not a defendant in this second lawsuit). He went on to say that the State would not be required to go against its own protocols if a temporary injunction was granted in this new lawsuit. Mullen also claimed that two counties, including Davidson County, already certified their ballots for the upcoming August primary since they went about their business as usual after the first lawsuit did not require them to change the ballot. ***Judge Perkins stated that he will not be considering either of these arguments in his decision.***
- Robby Starbuck specifically asked his lawyer to point out that he fully expected to win the 5th District US Congressional primary for the Republican party based on polls he had seen and that he was also expecting to be the first Hispanic Congressman to ever represent the state of Tennessee. This statement was made by Starbuck’s lawyer when he was making an argument about the irreparable damage Starbuck’s disqualification has caused Starbuck and his family.
- Judge Perkins did make sure to let the court know that he will be making his decision by the next day (today). This nods to the fact that Starbuck’s team voiced their urgency revealing their expectation that he will still be able to make it onto the August ballot if a temporary injunction is granted by the Judge and the SEC decision is voided before June 10th.
- If Judge Perkins grants the injunction and the SEC decision is voided, this will also affect the decisions the SEC made about Baxter Lee and Morgan Ortagus. (It is worth noting that Ortagus has since joined Kurt Winstead’s campaign as the co-chair on his National Security Advisor Committee.)
- Jim Garrett, Chairman Of The Executive Committee of the Davidson County Republican Party, was one of the Chairman who vouched for Robby Starbuck in writing and was present at this hearing.