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Justin Pearson Reinstated to Tennessee Legislature One Week After Expulsion

“[Tennessee Republicans] tried to kill democracy,” Pearson said after he was sworn back into office.

Justin Pearson raises a fist while marching with supporters including Rep. Gloria Johsnon, left, in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 12, 2023, before a vote by the Shelby County Commission to reinstate Pearson after he was expelled from the Tennessee state legislature.

Tennessee state Representative Justin Pearson (D), who was expelled after participating in a protest for gun reform on the state House floor, has been reinstated to his position after a unanimous vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday.

Pearson was removed from his elected position by the Republican-controlled House after he used a bullhorn to lead demonstrators gathered in the gallery in chants for gun reform. He was joined by Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson (D).

Republican leaders called a recess immediately after the protest began, and subsequently likened the peaceful protest to the violent breach of the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, with state House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) claiming — in comments he has since stepped back — that the lawmakers’ participation in the protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than the deadly Capitol attack.

Last week, Republicans voted to expel Pearson and Jones, who are Black; Johnson, who is white, was allowed to remain in office. Johnson acknowledged that racism likely played a role in the outcome of the votes, saying that the reason she escaped expulsion “might have to do with the color of our skin.”

Tennessee law stipulates that municipal boards can appoint interim lawmakers to fill vacancies from their districts in the state legislature. The Nashville Metro Council voted that Johnson could return to office earlier this week, and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted that Pearson should be reappointed on Wednesday.

Mickell Lowery, chairman of the Shelby County Commission, said that Pearson’s expulsion “was conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods.”

Lowery continued:

I am amongst the over 68,000 citizens who were stripped of having a representative at the State due to the unfortunate outcome of the State Assembly’s vote. I am certain that the leaders in the State Capitol understand the importance of this action on behalf of the affected citizens here in Shelby County, Tennessee and that we stand ready to work in concert with them to assist with only positive outcomes going forward.

Pearson celebrated his reinstatement. “[Republicans in] Nashville thought they could silence democracy,” he said after the commission’s vote. “The message for all the people in Nashville who decided to expel us: You can’t expel hope. You can’t expel justice. You can’t expel our voice. And you ‘shol can’t expel our fight.”

“They tried to kill democracy,” he told a crowd of his supporters. “They tried to expel the people’s choice and the people’s vote. And they awakened a sleeping giant.”

In holding a trial-like vote against the lawmakers last week, Republicans “ended up putting themselves on trial,” Pearson said.

“The people’s verdict is back: guilty,” he said, referring to the Republicans who had voted for the expulsions. “Guilty of white supremacy. Guilty of patriarchy. Guilty of supporting the NRA over the people. Guilty of attacking the poor. Guilty of not expanding health care. Guilty of not giving us educational resources. Guilty, guilty, guilty!”

Pearson was officially sworn back into office on Thursday morning, exactly one week after he was expelled.

According to a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll, 51 percent of Americans believe that Pearson and Jones’s expulsions were an anti-democratic abuse of power, while just 42 percent believe that the expulsions were appropriate.

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have called on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to launch an investigation into whether Pearson’s or Jones’s civil rights were infringed upon — including their rights to free speech and assembly — and whether the expulsions violated statutes barring racial discrimination.

“Silencing legislators on the basis of their views or their participation in protected speech or protest is antithetical to American democracy and values,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “We cannot allow states to cite minor procedural violations as pretextual excuses to remove democratically-elected representatives, especially when these expulsions may have been at least partially on the basis of race. Allowing such behavior sets a dangerous — and undemocratic — precedent.”