Judges rule state takeover of Nashville airport's board violates Tennessee Constitution

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A panel of judges ruled Tuesday that it was unconstitutional for Tennessee lawmakers to pass a state takeover of Nashville International Airport's board without approval from city officials or voters, delivering the latest blow in court to state Republicans' series of attempts to rein in the autonomy of Democratic-leaning Nashville.

The three state court judges sided with Nashville officials who sued, ruling that the law targeted Nashville alone and didn't include the local involvement required under the Tennessee Constitution's home rule protections. The ruling ousts the new Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority board, which awarded six of eight appointments to state officials and two to the mayor. It then reinstates the old board's setup, in which seven are picked by the mayor and confirmed by the metro council.

“Big win for the city obviously," said Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro, of Nashville. "But the bigger win is for the good old Tennessee Constitution, functioning as it should and ensuring some protection for local governments across the state.”

While a spokesperson for the attorney general said the office is reviewing its next steps, a spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton indicated an appeal would be coming.

The decision marks another win in court for Nashville officials over the slate of state restrictions passed this year to limit their authority. Last month, a judicial panel decided that the state cannot enforce a new law lowering the voting threshold for the local council to approve upgrades to the Nashville fairgrounds speedway, which are being considered in hopes of drawing a NASCAR race.

Separately, judges blocked a law cutting Nashville's city-county metro council from 40 to 20 seats before it would have taken effect for the August elections. That case remains ongoing. Another city lawsuit is still pending against a new law that reconfigures the panel overseeing professional sports facilities in the city by letting state leaders pick six of its 13 board members.

“The ruling today reinforces Metro’s right to maintain and control the airport authority,” said Wally Dietz, Nashville’s director of law. “Three different three-judge panels have now protected local governments from unconstitutional state overreach.”

Republican lawmakers have contended the state deserves more say over the growing airport because of its regional impact.

The new airport law, which brought on changes to the board on July 1, quickly created confusion.

City leaders had reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration, which can veto certain changes to the airport’s governance. The federal agency said it would keep recognizing the old board until the court rules. Meanwhile, the board with the state appointees was quickly installed, with the airport board arguing that it couldn’t defy a state law without a court order. As the lawsuit was pending, the two different boards even met at the same time on the same day across town from each other.

The judges also ruled that the law unconstitutionally removed local officials from office before their terms were expired, and that it violates the city's equal protection guarantees under the state constitution.

The judges found that Nashville was singled out, noting that the criteria under the law that “the world’s busiest cargo airport” — Memphis International Airport, home of FedEx — was excluded from the law.

Additionally, the ruling strikes down the expanded zoning and eminent domain powers that the new law afforded the airport authority.

The airport change was one of several the Legislature passed as it sought to curtail the power of the Democratic-led city, where the liberal-leaning metro council sunk a bid to bring the 2024 Republican National Convention to Nashville.