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Why Tennessee can’t win

The Tennessee legislators think they’re enjoying the last laugh. History holds that it’s Tennessee progressives who’ll get their way in the end.

2 min read
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

As we all know, the Tennessee state legislature targeted three Democratic legislators for having the temerity of exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.  In order to remain on brand, the legislature expelled state Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — both African-American — but decided to not expel state Representative Gloria Johnson, who’s White. Why not her? As Johnson noted, it’s “pretty clear” why she was spared: “I am a 60-year-old White woman, and they are two young Black men.” In other words, they’re not even trying to hide their racism anymore.

It's important to note that this is the same state legislature that couldn’t find the votes to oust state representative David Byrd, who was accused of sexually abusing three underage girls while he was their high-school basketball coach. He publicly apologized to one of his accusers. While House Speaker Beth Harwell urged Byrd to resign, she somehow never got around to an expulsion vote. Funny that. I don’t need to tell you that Byrd was White, do I? Byrd remained in office until recently, when, following a COVID infection that left him needing a liver transplant, he decided not to seek re-election.

The ousters mean there will be special election in those districts, which Jones and Pearson are nearly guaranteed to win. The obvious next step would be for the Republicans in the state legislature to refuse to seat them. And a little history lesson will show how that just won’t work.

The U.S. House of Representatives refused to seat Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., repeatedly elected in his Harlem Congressional District, due to allegations of misconduct. Had Powell been taking junkets to Florida and Bimini with cuties? Had he been mismanaging his committee’s budget? Had his absenteeism risen to an alarming extent? Had he welched on a 1963 libel judgment of $150,000 (nearly $1.5 million in today’s money)? Of course! But his real crime, as we all can guess, was being an outspoken, uppity Black man.

Powell won the special election that followed with 86% of the vote. Powell was seated, but he was fined and denied seniority. But in 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Powell v. McCormack that Powell had been duly elected and that Congress could just go hang.

Let’s skip to a state-level precedent. Julian Bond, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), ran for and won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965. But, the following January, the Georgia state representatives voted 184–12 not to seat Bond because he opposed the Vietnam War. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Bond v. Floyd that the Georgia House had violated Bond’s freedom of speech. Does this sound familiar? It should.

The U.S. Supreme Court, thanks to the Federalist Society and billions in dark money, has taken a hard turn to the right. But it’s good to remember that Chief Justice John Roberts always puts the Republican Party first in any decision. Does he want state legislatures in blue states to eject MAGA extremists in their ranks — especially as so many of them would have provable insurrectionist and white supremacist links? I’m pretty sure he could get either Kegger Kavanaugh or Neil Gorsuch to join him and the three liberal justices to prevent a tit-for-tat in the Northeast and West Coast.

The Tennessee legislators think they’re enjoying the last laugh. History holds that it’s Tennessee progressives who’ll get their way in the end.


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Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)



The Daily Wrap for Thursday, 5/23

The Daily Wrap for Thursday, 5/23

Still some wrap-up from Tuesday’s primary, including late calls of winners and possible recounts. Plus, some breaking news in the tweets below, and a cool story about a possible billboard (or billboards!) in west Kentucky.

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