In a widely expected move, the county commission of Shelby County, Tennessee voted unanimously to reappoint expelled state Rep. Justin Pearson to his Memphis-based seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. This came less than 24 hours after the other expelled state representative, Justin Jones, was reappointed by leaders in his Nashville district. Although both appointments are officially temporary pending a special election, both districts are ridiculously blue, and it’s a foregone conclusion that both Pearson and Jones will breeze to reelection if they run.
With the return of Pearson and Jones, attention ought turn to the man who led the charge to expel them, Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton. On Monday, Judd Legum of Popular Information uncovered strong circumstantial evidence that suggests Sexton doesn’t actually live in the district he claims to represent, as required by the state constitution. Rather, he may actually live in Nashville, the state capital, year-round. Read more on the story from Daily Kos’ Laura Clawson here.
On Tuesday, Legum revealed that Sexton broke his silence on the matter. In so doing, however, he raised more questions about whether he really lives in the district he nominally represents. In so doing, Sexton potentially exposed himself to a court challenge if he runs for reelection in 2024.
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Sexton nominally represents the 25th District, a swath of exurban and rural territory between Knoxville and Nashville. He claims a condo in Crossville as his residence. However, Sexton’s youngest child attends a private Christian school outside Nashville. Sexton frequently shows up at school events with his wife, Lacey—even though the school is some 200 miles west of Crossville.
This is significant, because one of Sexton’s nominal neighbors told Legum that Sexton only shows up at that condo on weekends, as well as occasional weekdays when school isn’t in session. How does the neighbor know? Every time Sexton shows up, he’s accompanied by a law enforcement detail.
In the past, Sexton has brushed off questions about his residence. As late as February, he simply brushed off a question from The Tennessee Holler, a progressive political blog focused on the Volunteer State.
Once Sexton realized he could no longer ignore these issues, he reached out to Phil Williams, longtime investigative reporter at Nashville CBS affiliate WTVF. Williams peered into the guts of Tennessee’s residency statute and noted that Sexton seems to be relying on two exceptions to the presumption that a married person’s residence is determined by where that person’s spouse and family live. For instance, a person doesn’t lose their residency by leaving it, provided they have the intention of returning.
Additionally, a Tennessean doesn’t lose their residency if he or she is employed “in the service of the United States or this state” and the nature of that employment keeps him or her elsewhere.
Fair enough. But Sexton undermines that claim by admitting that since he spends so much time in Nashville, he might as well have his family there as well.
According to Legum, the issue isn’t the amount of time Sexton spends in Nashville on official business, but where he lives for the rest of the year. According to the 2022 House Ledger Sheet, Sexton spent just 42 days on official business outside of the legislative session, which normally runs from January to April.
Legum spoke with a couple of Tennessee election law experts who think there are some real questions about whether Sexton actually lives in Crossville. One of them, John Spragens, concluded that based on what has been revealed, “someone could easily conclude that Sexton is living in Nashville.” Spragens recalled that while it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a speaker to live outside of his district for most of the year, Sexton was definitely “the first to expel members while his own house is not in order.” Spragens added that the legislature is “the sole arbiter of any member’s qualifications,” but added that Sexton’s residency could be challenged in court if he runs in 2024.
Another lawyer Legum contacted, Gary Blackburn, believed that Sexton was almost certainly “violat(ing) the spirit of this law” and was acting “contrary to the intent of the statute.” He cautioned, however, that the statute is also vague enough to make enforcement difficult. Despite this, Blackburn agrees that Sexton could potentially be forced into court to defend his residency.
From here? It’s awfully hard for Sexton to explain how he can spend a little more than a month in Nashville on official business apart from the legislative session and only show up in Crossville mostly on weekends during the rest of the year. Unless he can provide such an explanation, then at a minimum, he ought to stand down as speaker. Preferably, though, he ought to resign altogether while he can at least appear to be going decently.
Failing either of those, if anyone is willing to challenge Sexton’s residency in court—the best route to hold Sexton to account, given the GOP supermajority—they had better be swift about it.