published Saturday, February 11th, 2012

Hamilton County Circuit Court judge halts Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's recall election


by Cliff Hightower
Mayor Ron Littlefield smiles while talking to friends in Judge Jeff Hollingsworth's courtroom Friday. Judge Hollingsworth ruled that the August recall election will be stopped.
Mayor Ron Littlefield smiles while talking to friends in Judge Jeff Hollingsworth's courtroom Friday. Judge Hollingsworth ruled that the August recall election will be stopped.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • Judge stops August recall
    Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth ruled to stop the August recall election of Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield on Friday. Following the ruling, Jim Folkner, a member of Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, said the group will likely appeal the decision.

A judge invoked a decision he made more than a year ago -- later overturned by a higher court -- to stop the recall election of Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield for a second time.

Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollings-worth used his October 2010 decision to stop the recall effort as the basis for his ruling Friday that it should not continue.

In the previous ruling, Hollingsworth said state law trumped the City Charter, so the 9,000 petition signatures gathered by recall groups -- enough signatures under city law -- weren't enough under Tennessee law, which says more than 15,000 are needed.

An appeal was filed by Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, one of the groups behind the recall effort, and the Tennessee Court of Appeals overturned Hollingsworth's decision. The appeals court said the judge jumped the gun and should have given the Hamilton County Election Commission a chance to certify the petitions.

Speaking to a packed courtroom Friday, Hollings-worth said the appeals court never said he made the wrong determination.

"They said I was premature in my decision," he said. "Other than that, we don't know what they were thinking."

But he said the process being used by the election commission for the election was "illegal" and added that the recall "will not be on the ballot" on Aug. 2.

WHAT'S NEXT


The Hamilton County Election Commission will meet March 14, to discuss whether to appeal Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth's decision to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The group Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield also has a right to appeal within 30 days after the judge's written decision is filed in Circuit Court.

Poll
Do you agree with the decision to stop the recall election?

Littlefield met with reporters immediately afterward and said he was pleased with the decision.

"I hope the recallers will take this to heart and let this matter end right here," he said.

But Jim Folkner with Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield and Election Commission Attorney Chris Clem said their respective groups would decide whether to appeal in the next 30 days.

"We've got to figure out if our commitment is great enough to continue this," Folkner said. "I know I do."

Clem said the election commission would meet March 14 to discuss the next steps.

Hollingsworth made his decision after hearing three hours of arguments from Littlefield's attorneys, Clem, Folkner and the deputy state attorney general. The arguments centered on the constitutionality of the state recall statute.

Clem argued that the recall statute needs to be thrown out because a provision exempts Davidson County. State laws are supposed to apply equally to everyone.

Hollingsworth, however, said appeals courts and the Tennessee Supreme Court have warned trial judges to be cautious about overturning state statutes in order not to supersede decisions by the Tennessee General Assembly.

He also said previous cases allow trial judges to delete specific portions of statutes. Under that rule, the state law still would have passed the Legislature, making an argument against it a moot point.

At the beginning of the hearing, Folkner called on Hollingsworth to recuse himself. He said the judge received 42 percent of his campaign funding from Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, the same law firm that once employed him and is now defending Littlefield.

The judge dismissed the motion, saying "too much time" had passed since he left the firm. He also said he didn't even know he received 42 percent of his contributions from the law firm and that receiving those contributions did not make him biased.

"I don't see that as an issue," he said. "If the people I worked with don't support me, I don't know who will."

Folkner brought the issue up again after the hearing and also said he felt the appeals court voided Hollingsworth's entire opinion.

He reiterated that the fight is not over.

"We don't want to drop the ball on this," he said.

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