Earle J. Fisher, Et Al. v. Tre Hargett, Et Al.

Earle J. Fisher, Et Al. v. Tre Hargett, Et Al.
M2020-00831-SC-RDM-CV

We assumed jurisdiction over these appeals pursuant to Tennessee Code Annotated section 16-3-201(d)(1) (2009 & Supp. 2019) and Rule 48 of the Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court and ordered expedited briefing and oral argument. The issue we must determine is whether the trial court properly issued a temporary injunction enjoining the State from enforcing its current construction of the eligibility requirements for absentee voting stated in Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) (2014 & Supp. 2019). The injunction temporarily mandated the State to provide any eligible Tennessee voter, who applies to vote by mail in order to avoid transmission or contraction of COVID-19, an absentee ballot in upcoming elections during the pendency of pandemic circumstances. The injunction further mandated the State to implement the construction and application of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D) that any qualified voter who determines it is impossible or unreasonable to vote in-person at a polling place due to the COVID-19 situation shall be eligible to check the box on the absentee ballot application that ‟the person is hospitalized, ill or physically disabled and because of such condition, the person is unable to appear at the person’s polling place on election day; or the person is a caretaker of a hospitalized, ill or physically disabled person,” and have that absentee voting request duly processed by the State in accordance with Tennessee law. At oral argument before this Court, the State conceded that, under its interpretation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 2-6-201(5)(C) and (D), persons who have underlying medical or health conditions which render them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 or at greater risk should they contract it (“persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19”), as well as those who are caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, already are eligible to vote absentee by mail. We hold that injunctive relief is not necessary with respect to such plaintiffs and persons. We instruct the State to ensure that appropriate guidance, consistent with the State’s acknowledged interpretation, is provided to Tennessee registered voters with respect to the eligibility of such persons to vote absentee by mail in advance of the November 2020 election.

With respect to those plaintiffs and persons who do not have special vulnerability to COVID-19 or who are not caretakers for persons with special vulnerability to COVID-19, we hold that the trial court erred in issuing the temporary injunction. Accordingly, we vacate the temporary injunction. Recognizing that absentee ballots already have been cast for the August 6, 2020 election consistent with the trial court’s temporary injunction, and mindful of the goal of avoiding alterations to election rules on the eve of an election, the absentee ballots of all Tennessee registered voters who timely requested and submitted an absentee ballot by mail for the August 6, 2020 election pursuant to the trial court’s temporary injunction and which absentee ballots otherwise meet the requirements of the absentee voting statutes shall be duly counted. These cases are remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

This opinion is not subject to rehearing under Tennessee Rule of Appellate Procedure 39, and the Clerk is directed to certify this opinion as final and to immediately issue the mandate.

Authoring Judge: 
Justice Cornelia A. Clark
Originating Judge: 
Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle
Date Filed: 
Wednesday, August 5, 2020