For recently expelled former State Rep. Justin Pearson, Wednesday may be the day he is back into the District 86 stride again.
Shelby County Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery has called a special meeting of the Board of Commissioners for April 12 at 1:30 p.m. The one-item agenda is to “consider the action to reappoint Mr. Justin Pearson to his duly elected position to represent the citizens in District 86 for the State of Tennessee House for Representatives.”
Lowery made the call public with a media release distributed on Easter Sunday.
It fell upon the County Commission to consider the move after the GOP-dominated House last Thursday kicked Pearson out of office for what the Tennessee Republican Caucus labeled “behavior (that) violated multiple permanent rules of order, in addition to state law.”
Pearson – and fellow first-time Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville – were expelled in dramatic, nation-grabbing attention for a chant-laced protest against gun violence on the floor of the House on March 30. Notably, that was three days after a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville left three seniors and three 9-year-olds dead.
And the day hundreds were drawn to the state Capitol to demand more stringent gun control laws.
Along with Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Pearson and Jones faced the rare House move of expulsion. Johnson, who was serving in her second stint as a legislator, survived by one vote. In the history of the state, eight representatives had been expelled – six in the 19th Century and two in 20th century. The last such instance was 2016 when a lawmaker was removed for sexual misconduct.
In his released message, Lowery said the citizens’ protests were “understandable given the fact that the gun laws in the State of Tennessee are becoming nearly non-existent. It is equally understandable that the leadership of the State House of Representatives felt a strong message had to be sent to those who transgressed the rules.”
However, expulsion, said Lowery, was “conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods.”
The ramifications for the state, he added, “are still yet to be seen.”
The expulsions thrust Pearson and Jones and Johnson into a national spotlight. Vice President Kamala Harris flew into Nashville to meet with them and President Joe Biden had an electronic exchange with them. On Sunday, Pearson and Jones were on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“It’s always been a toxic work environment,” Pearson said of the state Capitol in response to a question.”
“When you have people making comments about hanging Black People on a tree as a form of capital punishment, when you wear a dashiki on the House floor and a member gets up and talks about your dashiki saying its unprofessional, they are really sending signals that you don’t belong here,” said Pearson.
“And that is what the underlying and undergirding comments and responses we heard on the House floor in (reference) to myself and my brother Rep. Jones is really about. It’s about us not belonging in the institutions because they are afraid of the changes that are happening in our society and the voices that are being elevated.”
While ready to return to the legislature if appointed by the Commission (and run in a special election), Pearson said he had heard that commissioners were being threatened by legislators “to not reappoint me or they (House legislators) are going to take away funding that is in the governor’s budget that the mayor and others have asked for.”
Asked on Sunday about any such pressure, Commissioner Edmund Ford Jr. said, “the so-called ‘pressure’ is for real.”
Rep. Antonio Parkinson said he had not heard of anything like that at the state level, adding, “not ruling it though.”
Parkinson told The New Tri-State Defender that he was “imploring the Shelby County Commission to reappoint Justin Pearson. I’m asking all Shelby County Delegation members to support his appointment.
“I’m also asking all Shelby County Delegation members to stand united against any retribution towards Memphis or Shelby County and its delegation members. Now, if ever, is the time for our elected leaders to be united as one voice.”
On Monday afternoon, Pearson posted to his Twitter account a letter sent to House Speaker Cameron Sexton by legal counsel representing he and Jones. Jones’ Covington and Burling LLP legal team includes former U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. Pearson’s counsel was listed as Burch Porter & Johnson, specifically Scott J. Crosby, Jef Feibelman and Sarah E. Stuart.
The letter characterized the House’s action against Pearson and Jones as “violations of the Representatives’ rights, the subversion of due process, the suppression of their freedoms of assembly and speech, (and) the oppression of their liberty to dissent” adding that their treatment was “unequal and discriminatory.”
While not writing to address those areas, the lawyers stated, the letter was written to “emphasize that the House must not now compound its errors by taking any further retributive actions” against Jones and Pearson or their constituents.
The statement the Tennessee House Republican Caucus issued on the day Pearson and Jones were expelled concluded with this:
“If elected to come back and serve their constituents in the Tennessee House of Representatives, we hope they will act as the thousands who have come before them – with respect for our institution, their fellow colleagues, and the seat that they hold. We look forward to continuing to defend the voices of ALL Tennesseans.”