'Illegal': Ex-US attorney says Tennessee House Republicans expelling 2 Democrats violates First Amendment
Tennessee House Republicans, led by Speaker Cameron Sexton, voted to expel two Black Democratic Representatives on Thursday, but also voted against the expulsion of a white Democrat. The actions of that right-wing super-majority legislative body are “illegal” and violate the First Amendment, argues former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance.
“What happened in Tennessee on Thursday was outrageous and stupid and petty, and then the legislature went on to advertise their racism. It was also illegal,” Vance, a professor of law and well-known MSNBC/NBC News contributor, wrote overnight in her Substack newsletter. “It shouldn’t take long for the next stage of this to play out in the courts. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that it happened in the first place.”
Thursday evening, Republicans voted to expel state Rep. Justin Jones and state Rep. Justin Pearson. The vote to expel state Rep. Gloria Johnson failed. All three were “charged” with violating House decorum – House rules, by standing in the well and speaking in support of the thousands of protestors exactly one week earlier, who came to the state house to demand lawmakers enact gun control policies after the school mass shooting in Nashville last week.
Vance pointed to the late Julian Bond, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who passed away in 2015.
He was also a four-term Member of the Georgia House of Representatives, but his path in the 1960’s to be able to actually represent his district was only first decided at the ballot box. Ultimately it had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“White members of the Georgia House challenged Bond’s right to be seated,” Vance writes, after Bond issued a statement against the Vietnam War.
Bond fought to be seated but a Georgia House committee voted against him. He took it to the courts, and lost in a 2-1 federal district court ruling. He brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and while waiting for that appeal to be heard so much time had passed he had to run for re-election. He won.
Although Georgia House members again refused to seat him, Bond finally won at the Supreme Court.
“The unanimous Supreme Court decision in Bond’s favor relied upon a famous First Amendment case, New York Times v. Sullivan, holding that although a state may impose a requirement that legislators take an oath of allegiance, it cannot limit their capacity to express views on local or national policy,” Vance explains, adding: “'[D]ebate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,’ the Court wrote, citing the decision in Sullivan.”
Vance also points to the ruling’s conclusion, which reads:
“Legislators have an obligation to take positions on controversial political questions so that their constituents can be fully informed by them, and be better able to assess their qualifications for office; also so they may be represented in governmental debates by the person they have elected to represent them. We therefore hold that the disqualification of Bond from membership in the Georgia House because of his statements violated Bond’s right of free expression under the First Amendment.”
Jones and Pearson both spoke eloquently and passionately on the House floor to defend their right to represent their constituents, while some Republicans barely tried to hide their apparent contempt and disdain for both Black men.
Reinforcing her allegations of obvious racism against the two now-former lawmakers, Vance sums up her argument: “A challenge to those members’ First Amendment rights cannot be dressed up as a violation of decorum rules; it’s still a violation of First Amendment rights. And when two Black representatives are expelled while a white one narrowly avoids expulsion, no amount of dissembling can erase the obvious conclusion.”
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