What must one do to be ousted from the Tennessee House of Representatives? One would think that acting in an egregious manner would suffice. That’s not the case. How do I know? One current member is under investigation for domestic violence.
Not to be outdone, a former member who was in office until this past January is under federal investigation for multiple (alleged) criminal violations.
Another recent member was recorded apologizing to one of three women whom he was accused of sexually abusing when they (i.e., the women) were teens. That member was re-elected – even after that revelation – in 2020. Finally, an unnamed current member urinated in the seat of another member.
Of course, all citizens are entitled to their day in court, including these legislators. Still, it is notable that – until last week – the Tennessee House had expelled only two members since the Civil War. (One was accused of bribery; the other was accused of sexual misconduct).
Today, the state’s political leadership doesn’t appear to care about serious malfeasance. One might conclude that the bar for expulsion from the House seems to be exceedingly high. In reality, it isn’t.
Last week, in dismissing members Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, Tennessee’s House acted recklessly and maliciously. Both men are Black. Both are Democrats. House leadership, which is overwhelmingly white and Republican, argues that Jones and Pearson’s behavior merited their ouster. It doesn’t.
Jones and Pearson, both of whom are under thirty, have served Tennessee honorably – and not just as politicians. Yet, both were summarily stripped of their House membership for joining their constituents who were exercising their right to protest – peacefully – in favor of gun control.
According to the resolution to dismiss them from the offices to which they were duly elected, both men “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor” to the House.
How does one “dishonor” an institution that has frequently acted dishonorably? How does one breach “decorum” in a place that has a habit of being indecorous? The plain fact is that Pearson and Jones had their seats vacated as political retribution.
Not only are Republicans incensed that these men sided with their constituents; they both have a history of engaging in social activism.
For example, Jones led the successful effort to have a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and Klansman, removed from the State Capitol. He also led a 61-day protest for racial justice after George Floyd’s public execution.
Pearson led the successful effort to stop a pipeline from running through an historic Black neighborhood in Memphis.
To underscore the disingenuousness of the expulsions, Tennessee hasn’t ousted multiple legislators in one session since 1866. At that point, the state was battling over citizenship rights for formerly enslaved African Americans.
According to Carrie Russell, who is a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University, the legislature ousted six members due to “the contempt of the authority of (the) House.”
Today, there is a great deal of contempt due to the fact that urban areas tend to be democratic strongholds, even in “red” states like Tennessee. Jones represents Nashville; Pearson represents Memphis. Both are generally “blue” cities.
Fortunately, Jones was sworn back in this past Tuesday at the State Capital after his City Council unanimously reinstated him. He immediately promised to file gun control legislation. (Pearson appears to be on the verge of being similarly reinstated by Memphis’ City Council as of this writing.) These are partial victories; both men will face a special election to be reinstated full-time.
The name Justin might be translated as “just”, “upright”, or “righteous”. The appellation is appropriate for both Pearson and Jones. In concert with their constituents, these men were kicked out of the Tennessee House for ensuring that the First Amendment isn’t simply a set of words on an old piece of paper.
They are just. They are upright. They are righteous.
When people of color criticize the “Founding Fathers” for engaging in human trafficking (aka slavery), we are told to “consider the time.”
We are encouraged to give a pass to people who are long dead because “that’s just how things were back then.”
What about today? In Tennessee, as elsewhere, we frequently see different consequences for people of different races. Speaker Cameron Sexton himself admits that it is common for House members to break the House’s rules.
Those violations don’t lead to expulsions. Yet, here we are. Welcome to Jim Crow 2023.
Tennessee’s state slogan is: “Tennessee – America at its best”. If that statement is valid, one wonders what America is like at its worst.