Several Democratic U.S. senators have formally requested that the Department of Justice (DOJ) open an inquiry into Tennessee Republicans’ expulsion of two Black state representatives last week.
Reps. Justin Jones (D-Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) were expelled from their positions earlier this month after they used a bullhorn to lead protesters in chants for gun reform on the Tennessee House floor. The protest was also joined by Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville).
Republican lawmakers immediately compared the Democrats’ participation in the protest to the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol building; Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton claimed that the protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than the violent attempt to overthrow the 2020 election, despite the fact that the Capitol attack resulted in numerous deaths and injuries while the protest for gun reform did not.
Pearson and Jones were subsequently expelled; Johnson, who is white, was allowed to remain in office.
Jones was reinstated on Monday by the Nashville Metro Council, while Pearson was reinstated on Wednesday through a vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.
In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Democratic senators Raphael Warnock (Georgia), Alex Padilla (California), Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii), along with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (New York), lodged a formal request for an investigation into whether the expulsions were a violation of Pearson’s or Jones’s civil rights.
The lawmakers requested that the DOJ examine whether Republicans’ action violated Jones’s and Pearson’s First Amendment right to free speech and assembly or statutes barring discrimination based on race. They also requested that the agency determine whether the expulsions infringed upon constituents’ 14th Amendment right to representation by legislators of their choice.
“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 wrote. “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.”
People of all goodwill in Tennessee and across America are deeply disturbed by these counter-democratic expulsions because they overturn and subvert the will of Tennessee voters in Nashville and Memphis.
The investigation was necessary, the Democratic senators said, not only to examine whether rights were violated or laws were broken, but also to deter future similar actions.
“We are deeply concerned that without immediate action by the U.S. Department of Justice, antidemocratic actors will only be emboldened, and we will see more troubling and more frequent incidents meant to unravel our democratic fabric,” the senators wrote.
The letter cited Bond v. Floyd, a 1966 U.S. Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that Julian Bond, a Black lawmaker in Georgia, had been unduly removed from his position due to his stance on the Vietnam War; amicus briefs in the case also asserted that race had played a role in his expulsion. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that it was a violation of Bond’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights for him to be denied a duly elected seat in the Georgia statehouse.
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