Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Tennessee Republican Party and Its State Executive Committee Did Not Violate the Tennessee Open Meetings Act Regarding Starbuck Candidacy

The Tennessee Supreme Court today held that the Tennessee Republican Party and its State Executive Committee (“Republican Party”) did not violate the Tennessee Open Meetings Act (“TOMA”) when they determined that Mr. Robert Starbuck Newsom a/k/a Robby Starbuck (“Mr. Starbuck”) would not be added to the ballot in the upcoming primary election for the United States House of Representatives 5th Congressional District. 

This case arose after Mr. Starbuck filed a nominating petition to run as a candidate in the Republican primary for Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District.  The Republican Party determined that Mr. Starbuck was not a bona fide Republican.  As a result, they directed the Tennessee Coordinator of Elections to exclude Mr. Starbuck from the ballot.  

Mr. Starbuck filed suit in federal court seeking an order requiring the Republican Party to restore him to the ballot.  However, he later dismissed that lawsuit after failing to obtain injunctive relief from the federal court.  Mr. Starbuck then filed suit in the Davidson County Chancery Court (“the trial court”) alleging, among other claims, that the Republican Party violated TOMA, a law that generally requires meetings of governing bodies to be open to the public.  Mr. Starbuck asserted that the Republican Party violated TOMA by determining in a non-public meeting that he was not a bona fide Republican.  For this reason, Mr. Starbuck argued that he should be added back to the ballot.  The trial court agreed and ordered state officials who were not parties to the Chancery Court action to include Mr. Starbuck on the ballot as a Republican candidate for the 5th Congressional District. 

Seeking expedited review of the trial court’s order, the Republican Party filed an application for extraordinary appeal in the Court of Appeals, as well as a motion in the Supreme Court asking the Court to assume jurisdiction over the case.  The state officials responsible for preparing the official ballot, the Secretary of State and the Coordinator of Elections, also filed a petition requesting that the trial court’s injunction be vacated. The Supreme Court granted the Republican Party’s request for expedited review and its application for extraordinary appeal. 

In a unanimous opinion, the Court held that the trial court erred when it determined that TOMA applied to the Republican Party under these circumstances.  The Court concluded that, while TOMA applies to state primary boards, it does not apply to state executive committees.  Because, by statute, a party’s state executive committee decides whether a candidate is a bona fide member of the party, the Court concluded that the Republican Party was acting as a state executive committee when they determined that Mr. Starbuck was not a bona fide Republican.  As a result, the Court vacated the trial court’s order granting Mr. Starbuck a temporary injunction requiring him to be placed on the ballot and remanded the case to the trial court to resolve any other remaining claims.

To read the Supreme Court’s opinion in Robert Starbuck a/k/a Robby Starbuck v. Tennessee Republican Party, et al., authored by Justice Jeff Bivins, visit the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.