Tuesday, 27 Feb 2024

Opinion | An Undemocratic Power Play in Tennessee

Justin Jones is back in the Tennessee House.

Just four days after Mr. Jones, a young Democratic lawmaker from Nashville, was expelled from office by Republican legislators for leading a gun-safety demonstration from the chamber floor, the Nashville Metropolitan Council restored him to his seat until a special election is held, an election in which Mr. Jones intends to run.

On Wednesday the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote on whether to return Mr. Jones’s colleague from Memphis, Justin Pearson, to the seat from which he was similarly expelled. It should. Swiftly reinstating both lawmakers is the right course and the best one available to honor the will of the 130,000 Tennesseeans who were represented by these men and disenfranchised by their ouster.

The voters in these districts were responsible for placing Mr. Jones and Mr. Pearson in office, and the right to remove them rests with those voters, if they should choose to use it. Republicans usurped this responsibility, and that decision was not only unjust but also undemocratic.

As in most American legislatures, Tennessee lawmakers have generally reserved expulsion for the most egregious transgressions. Before last week, only two of the state’s House members had been ousted in more than a century and a half — one for taking a bribe, the other for multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Plenty of disruptive, disrespectful and even potentially criminal behavior has gone entirely unaddressed. Indeed, just a few years ago, Tennessee Republicans declined to take action against a member of their caucus credibly accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls many years earlier.

Mr. Pearson and Mr. Jones, by contrast, were banished for using a bullhorn to lead a mass of demonstrators in chants for more restrictive gun legislation in the wake of a school shooting that killed three children and three adults. The protest was rowdy but peaceful. No property was damaged. No one was arrested or injured. When the Tennessee House speaker, Cameron Sexton, called for security to clear the chamber’s galleries, the crowd left.

Mr. Sexton nonetheless suggested that compared with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, this protest was “at least equivalent, maybe worse,” and his fellow Republicans accused the Democrats of breaching the rules of decorum and bringing “disorder and dishonor” to the House. They declined to remove a third Democrat involved in the action, Gloria Johnson. Republicans said the disparate outcomes were because Mr. Pearson and Mr. Jones used a bullhorn during the protest while Ms. Johnson did not. Others, including Ms. Johnson, posited that the difference was that the two ousted legislators are Black and she is white.

Certainly, every institution that serves as a forum for public discussion has to balance the need to allow open debate, vehement dissent and, at times, disruptive protest and other forms of protected political speech with the need to prevent violence or allow threats of disruption that have the effect of silencing speech. There is a long history in Congress and in statehouses of passionate political disagreements that boil over into protest.

But not every protest poses a threat or merits a punitive response.

In June 2016, with Republicans in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, members of the Democratic minority staged a sit-in at the Capitol to demand votes on gun-control legislation. Led by Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, a gaggle of Democrats spread out across the House floor, chanting, singing protest songs and using their phones to livestream the action, which technically violated House rules. Republicans grew frustrated and angry, and congressional business was upended as the protest stretched to nearly 26 hours — far longer than the action in Nashville. Several months later, Republican members adopted rules aimed at deterring future sit-ins, but none of the Democrats were censured or otherwise singled out for punishment.

In 2008 the Republican minority refused to leave the floor of the House after the chamber went into summer recess, to protest the speaker’s refusal to schedule a vote on offshore drilling. That protest lasted 35 days, with Republican lawmakers giving speeches and even inviting members of the public onto the floor, which generally is not allowed.

In those instances, as in so many others, lawmakers respected the right of protest and dissent that is central to the American two-party system. The response in Tennessee, by contrast, was wildly disproportionate. President Biden called the expulsion vote “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent.”

Mr. Biden was right to denounce it, and voters in many states should be wary of the undemocratic power grabs attempted by legislative majorities in recent years. In 2021 the Republican-dominated legislature in Kentucky passed a bill restricting the ability of the Democratic governor to fill U.S. Senate seats that become vacant. After the 2020 election controversy in Georgia, the Republican-controlled General Assembly moved to remove the secretary of state as chairman of the election board in favor of a chairman appointed by legislators. This was part of a wave of bills passed that year in more than a dozen states that undermined the authority of state and local election officials. Voters from both parties stand to lose if this continues.

And in Tennessee, legislators recently passed a law that would force Nashville to slash the size of its elected Metro Council by half — a move that is widely seen as a way to punish the council for rejecting an effort to bid for the 2024 Republican National Convention and that would have the effect of diluting minority representation. It demonstrates the legislature’s willingness to punish democratic institutions when they interfere with political priorities. (On Monday a judge temporarily blocked parts of the law.)

Having been reinstated by the Nashville council, Mr. Jones returns to the Tennessee House without missing a single bill vote on behalf of his constituents. Mr. Pearson, hopefully, will not be far behind.

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