Democratic Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson (center) and Justin Jones (right) attend the vote in which they were expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville.

Democratic Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson (center) and Justin Jones (right) attend the vote in which they were expelled from the state Legislature on April 6, 2023 in Nashville.

(Photo: Seth Herald/Getty Images)

Schumer and Warnock Lead Call for DOJ to Probe Expulsion of Tennessee Democrats

Senate Democrats are asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to "use all available legal authorities" to determine whether the U.S. Constitution or federal civil rights laws were violated and "take all steps necessary to uphold the democratic integrity of our nation's legislative bodies."

U.S. Senate Democrats on Wednesday sent a letter urging the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the recent expulsion of two Tennessee Democratic lawmakers to determine whether the widely condemned move was unconstitutional or otherwise unlawful.

Tennessee House Republicans have been roundly denounced since voting last Thursday to expel state Reps. Justin Jones (D-52) and Justin Pearson (D-86), with critics arguing that the removal of the Black progressive lawmakers—the state's first partisan expulsion since 1866—exemplifies the GOP's growing antagonism toward democracy.

A week before they were ousted and their combined 150,000 constituents were deprived of elected representation, Jones and Pearson had joined protesters in disrupting a floor session to demand gun control in the wake of last month's deadly school shooting in Nashville. State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-13), who is white, also participated in the demonstration but was spared the same fate by one vote.

Wednesday's letter, the first formal effort by U.S. senators to respond to the expulsions, asks U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to "use all available legal authorities" to determine whether the U.S. Constitution or federal civil rights laws were violated and "take all steps necessary to uphold the democratic integrity of our nation's legislative bodies."

The letter, led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), was co-signed by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.), Alex Padilla (Calif.), and Brian Schatz (Hawaii).

As The Washington Postreported:

The senators argue that the removals may have violated Jones' and Pearson's First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, the rights of citizens of Memphis and Nashville to be represented by the legislators of their choice, and rights the pair have under the 14th Amendment or civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race.

[...]

The letter cites the Supreme Court's unanimous 1966 ruling in Bond v. Floyd as a potential precedent to draw from in arguing that the expulsions in Tennessee were unlawful. In that case, the high court found that the Georgia House of Representatives' refusal to seat a Black lawmaker, Julian Bond, over his stance on the Vietnam War was unconstitutional.

In their letter, Senate Democrats praised Jones and Pearson for "courageously participating in nonviolent demonstrations" that "challenged procedural rules."

"We do not believe that breaking decorum is alone sufficient cause for employing the most draconian of consequences to duly elected lawmakers," the senators wrote. "This is undemocratic, un-American, and unacceptable, and the U.S. Department of Justice should investigate whether it was also unlawful or unconstitutional."

Laurence Tribe, a professor emeritus of law at Harvard University, told the Post that "there are some who would try to distinguish Georgia's exclusion of Bond for his speeches about the war outside the legislative chamber from Tennessee's repressive and vindictive expulsion of two duly elected members for their robust expressions of views in the well of the chamber in alleged violation of its rules of decorum."

"But to me, that is a distinction without a difference," added Tribe. The legal scholar is far from alone in opposing Tennesee Republicans' retaliatory act.

"We cannot allow states to cite minor procedural violations as pretextual excuses to remove democratically elected representatives."

A USA Today/Ipsos survey conducted Friday through Sunday found that three-fourths of U.S. adults—including 62% of Republicans—believe Americans, including lawmakers, have the right to peacefully protest in state houses.

Reporting on the poll Tuesday, USA Today noted that "a 51% majority call the expulsions an anti-democratic abuse of power, compared with 42% who view them as an appropriate way to discipline lawmakers."

Moreover, "in the wake of school shootings, two-thirds say state legislatures should enact stricter controls on gun purchases," the newspaper pointed out.

Stronger gun laws, after all, are precisely what Jones, Pearson, and Johnson, along with hundreds of concerned citizens, were calling for during the March 30 protest in the Tennessee State Capitol.

Alluding to the March 27 shooting at Nashville Covenant School that left three adults and three children dead, the Senate Democrats wrote Wednesday that this "tragedy shattered hearts across our country and galvanized Americans—particularly young Americans in Tennessee—to peacefully demand their legislators act."

"These deeply moving expressions of democratic participation follow America's long tradition of peaceful, nonviolent protest, perfected during the struggles and triumphs of the civil rights movement," the letter says.

"Silencing legislators on the basis of their views or their participation in protected speech or protest is antithetical to American democracy and values," the letter continues. "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."

"We are deeply concerned that without immediate action by the U.S. Department of Justice, anti-democratic actors will only be emboldened, and we will see more troubling and more frequent incidents meant to unravel our democratic fabric," the senators concluded. "Thank you for your work to protect our democracy."

Jones and Pearson were reappointed to the Tennessee Legislature by the Nashville Metropolitan Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

There are lingering fears, however, that the Tennessee GOP, which has defended and fundraised off the expulsions, could engage in further retaliation against Jones and Pearson. Attorneys for both men have warned the state's Republican lawmakers against doing so.

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