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Expelled Tenn. lawmaker restored to seat in unanimous vote

Rep. Justin Jones, reappointed on Monday, will serve on an interim basis pending a special election.

Rep. Justin Jones is sworn back into office on Monday afternoon on the steps of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, following a unanimous vote from the Nashville Metro Council. (Dulce Maria Torres Guzman/Twitter)

Amid a national fervor, the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County voted on Monday to reappoint expelled Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones to his seat in the House. The vote was unanimous at 36-0.

The 27-year-old was sworn in on the steps of the state capitol in Nashville, surrounded by a large crowd of supporters—many of whom marched with him there from the council meeting with locked arms, in a scene reminiscent of Civil Rights protests of old.

“In the end, the people of Tennessee made the ultimate choice of courage and hope,” Jones said on social media later that night.

“Thank you to the thousands who came to the people’s house today to show the nation that we will not yield to authoritarian attacks on our democracy. Our fight is not over.”

The widely expected move from the Nashville Metro Council came just four days after GOP members of Tennessee’s lower chamber voted to oust Jones and his fellow Democrat Justin J. Pearson for leading a gun control protest in the capitol building on March 30.

The two Gen Z legislators, both African Americana and just months in their first terms, faced expulsion on Thursday alongside Rep. Gloria Johnson, a White woman who also led the protest but retained her seat. Dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” they had protested in response to a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville on March 27 that left seven dead.

Jones had previously been removed from the capitol building for protests in 2019, before his electoral career, concerning the presence a statue there of Confederate war hero and slave-trader Nathan Bedford Forrest (who is honored annually with a public holiday in Tennesee).

The unprecedented expulsions by the conservative supermajority in the Tennessee House brought national condemnation from progressives and other voices that likened the move to Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement. Both Jones and Pearson represented significantly Black districts and echoed such comments.

As the Nashville Metro Council and Shelby County Commission mulled an expected interim reappointment of Jones and Pearson, respectively, Tennessee Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton threatened to refuse to seat the two young lawmakers until 2025, after the next general election. He later reversed this position.

Amid the fracas, Jones and Pearson received support from various national figures, including the likes of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. They spoke with the president via conference call on April 7, and Harris met with the two the same day at Fisk University—Jones’ alma mater, where he served in the Catholic campus ministry.

Jones and Pearson also retained high-powered attorneys for an expected legal battle with Tennessee House Republicans. Jones’ counsel, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., joined Pearson’s to send a letter on Monday to Rep. Sexton calling for an unobstructed return to office following any reappointments.

“The world is watching Tennessee,” it reads, echoing rhetoric from Jones’ viral remarks during his expulsion vote on Thursday.

“Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress.”

(The Tennessee Holler)

Sexton did not prevent Jones’ seating on Monday in Nashville, with the young legislator locking arms with Rep. Johnson as he entered the capitol chambers. Pearson looked on from the balcony amid a swarm of cheering supporters.

“I want to welcome the people back to the people’s house,” Jones said during remarks before the assembly.

“On last Thursday, members of his body tried to crucify democracy but today we stand as a witness of a resurrection of a movement, of a multiracial democracy… Truth crushed to the ground will rise again.”

Jones will serve on an interim basis until a special election is scheduled by Gov. Bill Lee. Pearson’s seat in the capitol will be filled via a vote from the Shelby County Commission on Wednesday in Memphis. The voting members expected to be present include seven Democrats and four Republicans; seven votes are needed for a reappointment.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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