Judge Finds Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance ‘In Contempt of Court,’ Orders Fees Returned to PACs

Last week, a judge held a Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance agency, the Registry of Election Finance, in contempt of a previous permanent injunction and ordered the agency to return $64,000 in fees collected.

In 2018, the Registry of Election Finance was ordered to cease the enforcement of Tenn. Code Ann. §2-10-121, which establishes a registration fee for multi-party political campaign committees because it was ruled to be unconstitutional. A permanent injunction against enforcement was issued.

According to a judge, the agency “is in contempt of court.” This case arose from the Registry’s resumption of collection to the tune of $64,000.00 in PAC fees. That act violated the permanent injunction prohibiting it from doing so.

Tennesseans for Sensible Election Laws filed suit after the agency resumed collecting fees. The Tennessee General Assembly attempted to fix the code to withstand judicial scrutiny, which was the argument made as to why the agency began collecting fees again.

Judge Thomas Wright for the Chancery Court for Davidson County, Tennessee ruled that the agency was in contempt of the previous order because it resumed enforcement of Tenn. Code Ann. §2-10-121.

Judge Wright noted in his opinion:

Tenn. Code Ann. §2-10-121 was in existence at the time this Court’s injunction was issued and the fact that it was amended in some respect by the legislature after the issuance of the injunction does not nullify or make moot the injunction which proscribes the statute’s enforcement. Under the defendant’s theory, the legislature could have made any change at all and taken the statute out from under the injunction issued in 2018. Any minor change to that code section would allow the State to circumvent this Court’s injunction under defendant’s theory.

Wright further noted that the agency did not enforce the statute in 2019 or 2020, after the legislature had taken action, but began to do so again in 2021. “Defendant did not enforce the statute, as amended, in 2019 or 2020. However, in January 2021 defendant made the decision to begin enforcing the statute again.”

The state agency made a motion for summary judgement against the contempt request. That was denied.

The facts and conclusions in this Court’s Order on Defendant’s Motion for Relief from Judgment filed December 16, 2021 are hereby incorporated in this Memorandum Opinion by reference. For these reasons, Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment based upon the amendment of the statute in 2019 is DENIED.

The judge said in his ruling that the state agency willfully violated the previous injunction.

The final issue raised in the Motion for Summary Judgment was the issue of willfulness. The undersigned FINDS that there is a dispute as to material facts regarding the issue of willfulness in the violation of this Court’s injunction. The timing of the decision to begin enforcing the statute supports the idea that it was a willful decision since no enforcement efforts were made in 2019 or 2020 after the statute was amended. In addition, defendant collected $64,000.00 in 2021 from enforcing the statute and has not returned any of that money to PACs who were required to pay the enjoined registration fee, even after Defendant’s Motion for Relief from Judgment was denied.

The ruling concluded:

Prior to the trial on this contempt petition defendant again stopped enforcing the statute. At trial, defendant argued that the issue of civil contempt has been rendered moot, because they are currently complying with this Court’s injunction and the purpose of civil contempt is to coerce compliance. The defendant’s position is meritorious except for one detail: defendant has retained all of the registration fees that were obtained by the unlawful enforcement of the unconstitutional statute. Based upon the defendant’s retention of these improperly collected fees, this Court FINDS that defendant remains in contempt.

The judge then ordered the Registry to return “all improperly collected registration fees” that were obtained “in violation of this Court’s injunction, within 15 days of the date this Memorandum Opinion and Order is stamped by the Clerk and Master.” He further ordered that future fines will be considered if the Registry does not refund the fees. He also said that plaintiff’s counsel may request consideration for attorney’s fees if filed within 15 days.

Court costs associated with the case were also ordered to be paid by the defendant.

The court ruling can be seen here:

Memorandum Opinion and Order on Plaintiff’s Petition for Contemp (1)

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Aaron Gulbransen is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected] Follow Aaron on GETTRTwitter, and Parler.
Photo “Thomas Wright” by Tennessee Courts. Background Photo “Courtroom” by Karen Neoh. CC BY 2.0.

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