HomeLocal News

U.S. Sen. Warnock, colleagues urge civil rights review of Tennessee lawmakers’ expulsion

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., fired off a letter Wedn

From the Chattanooga Times Free Press: U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., fired off a letter Wednesday urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate last week’s expulsions of two Black state Democratic legislators by Tennessee House Republicans.


GOP lawmakers expelled Democrats Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis for rule violations after they interrupted proceedings to stage a state House floor gun-control protest. They used a bullhorn to lead chants from the House floor following a Nashville private school attack by an armed 28-year-old with mental health problems, leaving three children and three adults dead.


“We write to urge the U.S. Department of Justice to use all available legal authorities to investigate the expulsions of Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee General Assembly, the state legislature of Tennessee, to determine whether any violations of the United States Constitution or federal civil rights laws have occurred, and to take all steps necessary to uphold the democratic integrity of our nation’s legislative bodies,” Warnock, Schumer and three other U.S. Senate Democrats wrote.


“Silencing legislators on the basis of their views or their participation in protected speech or protest is antithetical to American democracy and values,” the senators 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.”


Jones, Pearson and state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, went to the House well on March 30. Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to lead hundreds of protesters in the galleries and yet more outside the chamber in chants for gun-control measures in response to the March 27 shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.


Johnson avoided expulsion a week later on April 6 when efforts to oust her failed by one vote with seven members of the Republican supermajority voting against her expulsion. During expulsion proceedings, Johnson, who is white, said she had not used the bullhorn and video backed up her assertion. She suggested her Democrat colleagues may have been expelled because of the color of their skin.


Both Jones and Pearson have been reappointed to their seats by local commissions that have the authority to fill vacancies in the House.


The shooting led Tuesday to Republican Gov. Bill Lee to call on lawmakers to approve an order of protection law to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. He also announced an executive order for strong background checks for gun purchases.


Joining Warnock and Schumer on the letter to the U.S. Justice Department were Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.


The senators said “three precious children” and three adults charged with their care were “slaughtered in a horrific shooting” at the school.


“Their tragedy shattered hearts across our country and galvanized Americans — particularly young Americans in Tennessee — to peacefully demand their legislators act,” the letter said. “These deeply moving expressions of democratic participation follow America’s long tradition of peaceful, non-violent protest, perfected during the struggles and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement.”


They also noted the expulsion reportedly marked the first time the Tennessee legislature had expelled members “solely” over a procedural violation.


The senators also asked the Justice Department to investigate whether actions by the Tennessee House “violated rights of tens of thousands of Tennessee citizens in Memphis and Nashville” to be represented by the legislators of their choice.


A spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the federal lawmakers’ letter.