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UPDATE: Tennessee Speaker admits his family lives hours away from the district he represents
Yesterday, Popular Information published an article that posed this question: Where does the Tennessee House Speaker actually live?
The issue is that Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) represents District 25, which encompasses the community of Crossville, about two hours outside of Nashville. Under the Tennessee Constitution, Sexton can only represent District 25 if he is "a qualified voter of that district."
A Popular Information investigation uncovered substantial evidence that Sexton and his family lived year-round in Nashville, not Crossville. The piece cited property records, school enrollment, and the observation of his neighbor in Crossville. Sexton's office, however, did not respond to a request for comment.
After yesterday's story was published and spread rapidly online, Sexton did communicate with Phil Williams, a high-profile Tennessee reporter. Williams reported that "Sexton argues, as Speaker, he has to be in Nashville so often that it's easier to have his family here." So now we know the answer to the question: Sexton, and his family, live in Nashville.
In addition to not living in Crossville, Sexton has also not paid his property taxes on his two-bedroom condo in Crossville for the last two years, according to the Cumberland County website.
Under Tennessee law, "[t]he place where a married person's spouse and family have their habitation is presumed to be the person's place of residence." So, now that Sexton admitted he and his family live in Nashville, there is a presumption that Sexton also resides in Nashville for the purpose of voting registration. That would make his representation of District 25 unconstitutional since he wouldn't be "a qualified voter of that district."
The presumption can be rebutted if "a married person who takes up or continues abode with the intention of remaining at a place other than where the person's family resides is a resident where the person abides." But Sexton does not "abide" in Crossville while his family lives in Nashville. Sexton, by his own account, lives with his family in Nashville.
According to Williams, Sexton also cited a different section of Tennessee residency law, which states, "a person does not gain or lose residence solely by reason of the person's presence or absence while employed in this service of... this state." The issue, however, is not the time Sexton is in Nashville during the four-month legislative session or other official business. The issue is that he lives there year-round, whether or not he is conducting legislative business.
According to the 2022 House Ledger Sheet, for example, Sexton reported working on official business just 42 days outside of the four-month legislative session. But when he is not conducting official business, Sexton still appears to live in Nashville.
John Spragens, an attorney in Tennessee who litigates election law issues — including residency challenges — agreed that there were legitimate issues about whether Sexton was a legal representative of his district. "Residency for voting purposes involves several factors, but someone could easily conclude that Sexton is living in Nashville," Spragens said. "He’s not the first speaker to do that — just the first to expel members while his own house is not in order."
Spragens added that, at the moment, "the legislature is the sole arbiter of any member’s qualifications, so it’s up to [Sexton's] colleagues to decide whether he or any representative should be expelled." Spragens said that Sexton's residency could be challenged in court if he runs for reelection.
Gary Blackburn, an attorney who has practiced law in Tennessee since the 1970s, said that what Sexton is doing "violates the obvious spirit of this law" and is "contrary to the intent of the statute." Blackburn said, however, that enforcement may be difficult because of vague language in the residency statute. Nevertheless, according to Blackburn, the issue of Sexton's residency is "worthy of public discussion." He agreed that Sexton could face a court challenge in any subsequent run for office.