Testing the Limits

As far as we can see, the current lawsuit in Chancery Court whereby three members of the Shelby County Commission seek to invalidate a term-limits requirement is being handled with all due propriety. And for that we credit the good judgment of current county attorney Brian Kuhn.

Early on, Kuhn noted that the three veteran commissioners -- Walter Bailey, Cleo Kirk, and Julian Bolton -- would have to arrange and finance their own legal representation. They have done so, engaging Allan Wade, who happens to double as attorney for the Memphis City Council. That latter fact may be an eyebrow-raiser, but it does not connote any impropriety. Kuhn also advised of a possible conflict of interest if his office, which normally represents both the commission as a public body and the commissioners as separate entities, should directly handle any of the proceedings. Accordingly, the county has engaged lawyer Leo Bearman of the respected Baker Donelson law firm to conduct a defense of the 1994 referendum, whereby county residents voted for a limit of two terms for the offices of county mayor and county commissioner. Inevitably -- and properly, since their interests are involved -- taxpayers are footing the bill for this defense.

The issues of the case are intriguing. Are the offices of a county chief executive and commissioner mandated by the state Constitution, as the three plaintiffs argue they are? If so, the term-limits referendum could be held invalid. If, on the other hand, these offices are ruled to be creatures of the Shelby County charter, then the limits would presumably stand. The legal picture is cloudy, with prior rulings of the state attorney general's office and those by the county attorney's office in apparent conflict.

We are no fans of the term-limits concept in the abstract -- especially since both city and county voters have demonstrated in recent elections that they are prepared to turn out veteran legislators whom they regard as having outlived their public usefulness. No law required them to do so; they merely exercised the franchise.

And, as Republican congressman Henry Hyde once argued in opposing such limits for the U.S. House of Representatives, you don't develop governmental leaders by looking up numbers in the phone book. All other factors being equal, we would be opposed to the retention of the local two-term limit for commissioners. But the fact that the county term-limits referendum was approved by 81 percent of the voters in 1994 is a compelling one that tilts the argument in favor of keeping the limits.

That, however, is a political judgment, not a legal one. The courts -- and we use the plural because a round of appeals in this matter is a foregone conclusion -- will decide. And this too is as it should be.

The Grizzlies

In no uncertain terms, we celebrate the current success of Memphis' pro basketball franchise, whose exciting season has qualified them for the NBA playoffs, with at least the possibility of a home-court advantage for the first round.

Congratulations are in order for Coach Hubie Brown, a candidate for league Coach of the Year honors, for general manager nonpareil Jerry West, and for those Everyman Heroes, the Grizzlies themselves.

Some sticky issues still accrue to the one-sided agreement with the team ownership, in which the city and county find their hands tied in dealing with the potential white elephant of The Pyramid. The winning season does not and should not substitute for a fair resolution of these issues. But in the meantime, we resolutely decline to be a house divided. Go Griz!

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