As elected members of the Tennessee House, Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson did what their constituents wanted them to do: Speak out on the tragedy of gun violence, and demand that their colleagues take meaningful action. But as we have seen across the country from Republicans enthralled by the gun lobby, Republican Tennessee legislators will not fix it. Their only response to the March 27 Covenant School shooting was to introduce legislation that would arm teachers with guns.
So on March 30, the Tennessee Three joined in solidarity with teachers and students who came to the state capitol to protest. As a result, the House Republicans moved to expel them. Despite all three lawmakers participating in this action, only Jones and Pearson—who are Black men—were expelled, while Johnson’s expulsion vote failed.
This action denied thousands of Tennesseans a voice in the legislature and is only the third time since the Civil War that Tennessee legislators have been expelled—with the prior reasons being serious criminal or ethical charges (bribery and sexual harassment). Now that their respective county commissions have unanimously reappointed Jones and Pearson, it is time to hold the GOP accountable for this illegal and unconstitutional move.
Sign the petition to the U.S. Department of Justice: Investigate the expulsion of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson for constitutional violations and breaking federal law.
Voting to expel legislators for speaking out of turn would be an extreme measure under any circumstance, but in this case, it may have violated federal law and the U.S. Constitution. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that Georgia legislators had improperly denied Rep. Julian Bond his seat because he had spoken out against the Vietnam War. At the time, the court wrote in Bond v. Floyd (1966):
Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them.
RELATED STORY: History repeating: Long before Pearson and Jones, Georgia rejected a duly elected Black activist
But it gets worse in this situation, because the Tennessee House chose not to expel Johnson—who, unlike Jones and Pearson, is white. That could also violate the 14th Amendment as well as federal civil rights laws.
On April 12, five U.S. senators wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland to request that the Justice Department investigate these expulsions—which may result in a federal lawsuit. While Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated, the senators noted:
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.
Meanwhile, Tennessee Republicans are only upset that their political stunt backfired. In a leaked recording, House members were furious at their GOP colleagues who did not also expel Johnson—because expelling two Black men but not a white woman made them look racist. One white Southern conservative politician added: "I've never had anybody call me a racist," while another said: "you got to do what’s right, even if you think it’s wrong."
RELATED STORY: Leaked audio: Tennessee House Republicans are upset because they made themselves look 'racist'
And now Tennessee Republicans are scrambling to adjourn their legislative session early to avoid more embarrassing public scrutiny. But it doesn't matter what they do next. They expelled two young Black lawmakers for speaking on an issue that made them uncomfortable. And if that violated the Constitution or any federal law, they must be held accountable for their wildly anti-democratic and racist actions.
'You gotta do what's right, even if you think it might be wrong' reveals toxicity of Tennessee GOP
Sign the petition to the U.S. Department of Justice: Don’t let the Tennessee GOP get away with what’s much more than a political stunt.