By Leslie Acevedo
WASHINGTON, DC – Five U.S. senators Friday urged the Dept. of Justice to investigate the expulsions of Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from the Tennessee General Assembly to determine whether any violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal civil rights laws occurred, and “to take all steps necessary to uphold the democratic integrity of our nation’s legislative bodies”
U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) said, in their letter, “Silencing legislators on the basis of their views or their participation in protected speech or protest is antithetical to American democracy and values.
“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,” the lawmakers wrote.
“Regardless of where Americans fall in the debate over how to best respond to gun violence, our democracy only works when Americans can have that debate in our newspapers, town squares, and most important, our halls of government,” added the senators.
“Americans’ right to peaceful assembly and to petition their elected representatives for redress of grievances is at the bedrock of our Constitution, enshrined in its First Amendment, and at the core of our nation’s founding principles. It is the essential firmament upon which this country was founded, and through which our democracy survives. It is our origin story; it is who we are,” they noted.
The senators urged the DOJ to investigate whether actions by the Tennessee state legislature violated any rights of any Tennessee citizens to be represented by the legislators of their choice and to investigate the potential violation of any rights of Representatives Jones and Pearson.
The lawmakers addressed a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, requesting a response by April 28, 2023.
“On March 27, 2023, six people—three precious children and three adults charged with their care —were slaughtered in a horrific shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. Their tragedy shattered hearts across our country and galvanized Americans—particularly young Americans in Tennessee—to peacefully demand their legislators act,” wrote the senators.
“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,” they added, noting three legislators from Tennessee—Representatives Jones, Johnson, and Pearson—joined this growing chorus of Americans by protesting their colleagues’ inaction on gun violence on the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
In response, on April 7, “the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two of these Representatives, both of whom are Black: Representatives Jones and Pearson,” wrote the lawmakers, calling the actions, “un-democratic, un-American, and unacceptable, and the U.S. Dept. of Justice should investigate whether it was also unlawful or unconstitutional.”
The senators urged the AG Office to investigate whether there was violation of “[a]ny rights of tens of thousands of Tennessee citizens in Memphis and Nashville to be represented by the legislators of their choice, whether under Article IV, Section 4 (guaranteeing to the states a Republican form of government) or other authorities, any rights of Representatives Jones and Pearson under the Fourteenth Amendment or its enforcing civil rights statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race; and any rights of Representatives Jones and Pearson under the First Amendment protecting the right of speech and assembly.”
The five senators said, in their letter, that without any immediate action by the Dept. of Justice, “antidemocratic actors will only be emboldened, and we will see more troubling and more frequent incidents meant to unravel our democratic fabric.”