A group of Senate Democrats is asking the Justice Department to look into the expulsion of two Tennessee lawmakers last week.
Democrat Sens. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Raphael Warnock (Ga.), Chris Murphy (Conn.), Alex Padilla (Calif.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday to call on the Justice Department to investigate the expulsions of Tennessee state Reps. Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) and Justin Jones (D-Nashville).
The lawmakers urged the Department to use “all available legal authorities” in investigating the expulsions to determine if the move violated the Constitution or federal civil rights laws, according to the letter obtained by The Hill.
The letter pointed to the Nashville Covenant School shooting that prompted the group of three Democrat lawmakers — Jones, Pearson and state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) — to protest against gun violence. The shooting left six people dead, including three 9-year-olds, which led gun safety reform groups in Tennessee to call for change.
“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.”
The lawmakers went on to denounce the move to expel Pearson and Jones as undemocratic. The lawmakers also wrote that the Tennessee state legislature has never expelled a member for violating house procedures, but that expulsion is typically reserved for more serious violations, like ethical or criminal misconduct.
“Silencing legislators on the basis of their views or their participation in protected speech or protest is antithetical to American democracy and values,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “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.”
Johnson, a white woman, survived her vote, but Pearson and Jones, two Black men, were voted out. Jones was appointed by the Nashville City Council on Monday to be sworn back in to the House to serve as an interim representative for his district.
“In taking this radical action, rather than responding to the intolerable violence inflicted upon a Tennessee community, the Tennessee House of Representatives chose to silence Black members of their own body who were protesting nonviolently, in response to violence,” the letter states.
The letter also cites a Supreme Court opinion, Bond v. Floyd (1966), that was issued after the Georgia state legislature refused to seat Julian Bond, an elected Black man, to the state assembly. The ruling the letter cited read, “Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them,” and ultimately unanimously ruled that it was unconstitutional not to seat him.
“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,” the lawmakers concluded. “Thank you for your work to protect our democracy.”
The Washington Post first reported the letter sent to the Justice Department earlier Wednesday.