Senate Democrats call on DOJ to investigate expulsions of Black Tennessee legislators

Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raise...
Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raise their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature, Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.(AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Published: Apr. 12, 2023 at 4:24 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A group of Senate Democrats is demanding the U.S. Department of Justice investigate the recent expulsions of two Black Democratic Tennessee legislators after they led a gun legislation protest on the Tennessee House floor days after the Covenant School shooting, according to NBC News.

Reps. Justin J. Pearson (D-Memphis) and Justin Jones (D-Nashville) were expelled by the Tennessee General Assembly on April 6. Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) also faced expulsion but survived the vote.

Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were stripped of their committee...
Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were stripped of their committee appointments by House Speaker Cameron Sexton after participating in a gun reform protest on the Tennessee House floor March 30.(Tennessee General Assembly)

On Wednesday, the Democrats, led by Senator Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) sent a letter to the DOJ asking the department to probe the expulsions of Reps. Jones and Pearson 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.”

The letter was also signed by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Alex Padilla of California, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

“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,” the lawmakers wrote. “There are no allegations that these democratically-elected officials engaged in any violent or illegal conduct.”

“By courageously participating in nonviolent demonstrations, they challenged procedural rules governing decorum and good behavior,” they added. “We believe the repeated and preventable slaughter of our children should frustrate and disrupt decorum because this horrifying pattern must never be accepted as business as usual.”

In an unprecedented move, the GOP-controlled statehouse voted to expel Jones and Pearson for leading supporters in a protest on the chamber floor against gun violence and for firearm restrictions after the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, which killed six people, including three 9-year-old children.

State Republicans argued that the lawmakers had broken decorum rules.

A vote to boot state Rep. Johnson, a white Democrat who also participated in the protests, fell short.

Johnson told CNN she believes she survived the vote because she’s a “60-year-old white woman, and they are two young Black men.”

On Monday, the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones to his seat in the legislature, and the Shelby County Commission voted Wednesday to reinstate Pearson.

In their letter to DOJ Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday, the Senate Democrats argued that the expulsions were “antithetical” to democracy and that the decision appeared to be at least partially based on race.

“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,” they wrote.

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