Catherine Pugh (Photo courtesy of the AFRO)

By Catherine Pugh

There are laws in every state that should be modified or repealed, either because they are outdated or just don’t make sense. Some laws are not enforceable or provide convenience for legislators. Other statues are not justly applied and can be seen as discriminatory.

The question for all states is not only  the repeal or modification of laws that don’t make sense but how do we fairly and justly apply or enforce these elements of our state codes and constitutions at the local, state and federal levels without prejudice.   

Some laws are made with specific people, animals, or concerns in mind. Consider Kentucky where every legislator, public officer and lawyer must take an oath stating that they have not fought a duel with deadly weapons. The law, a part of the Kentucky constitution, was placed on the books in 1849 to keep men who sought public office from engaging in the once popular southern tradition of public dueling.   

Consider, too, statutes that since 1931 labeled adultery a felony in the state of Michigan or the difficult to enforce provision of Nebraska law that no person who is afflicted with a sexually transmitted disease can marry.  In 2015, some 9,700 Nebraskans reported cases of chlamydia or gonorrhea to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The health code in the state statute could have prevented any of them from marrying.

Legislatures have enacted laws into their constitutions that outlaw many actions. In Hawaii billboards are outlawed, with a few exceptions for notices from public offices.

But legislative bodies across the country don’t always get it right. 

According to Laura Hall, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL), what happened to State Reps. Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis in Tennessee should never happen again.  Hall, a Democrat in the Alabama legislature, leads an organization that is the voice for more than 700 African American lawmakers in legislatures across the country.

The action that took place in the Tennessee legislature was discriminatory.  Let me remind you there were three legislators originally subjected to the punishment meted out to Jones and Pearson, two Democratic African-American members. A third person who participated in the activities which caused Tennessee lawmakers to consider expulsion was State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a White-female democrat from Knoxville.   Johnson, in a narrow vote in the chamber,  was spared expulsion. 

Johnson quickly exclaimed that she was not given the same punishment “because of my race.” To be expelled from the legislature required a two-thirds vote. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the Tennessee legislature three to one.  The expulsion vote to expel Jones was 75-25,  69-29 against Pearson 69-29 and 65-30 against Johnson.  

The expulsions were carried out under Article 11, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution which states that the house can “punish its members for disorderly behavior, and with the concurrence of two thirds expel a member.” The resolution to expel the three Democrats was offered the Monday following the disruption to the session that occurred the previous Thursday evening.

The activity that led to Jones and Pearson’s expulsion was precipitated by a debate and protest in the Tennessee House chamber over gun control in a state that has experienced two mass shootings this year. The Republican-controlled legislature refused to hear the three Democrats and they were ruled out of order.  One mass shooting took place Feb,19 in Memphis represented by Pearson where eleven people were shot one fatally and the second occurred March 27 in the district represented by Jones when three children and three adults at a Christian school were shot to death. To say that emotions were high is an understatement.  Parents and community members were present demanding action on behalf of their legislators. 

Events such as these mass shootings should at the least cause legislators to pause, engage in debate and think about how we get guns under control in our country.  Since 1968 more civilians have died from gunshot wounds in this country than soldiers killed in all our collective wars, according to military statistics. The data says 1.5 million   people have died in gun-related deaths in the United States in comparison to 1.2 million service members killed in every war in United States history, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs and,  a website that maintains an ongoing data base of casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

It is time to place responsible gun laws on our books and hold ourselves accountable and that includes our legislative bodies. Laws cannot be discriminatory; they cannot be applied differently for one race against another or one sex or one party against another. 

While Reps. Jones and Pearson were finally reinstated, the red flag in Tennessee has already been raised.  

Correcting injustices in our local, state and federal constitutions is an obligation that all legislative bodies should undertake.  Our nation is at a crossroads and Tennessee helped put us there.  We cannot let this happen again.

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