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Laboratories of un-democracy
Tennessee. Minnesota. Texas.
The most basic depiction of our representative democracy is that voters choose people to make decisions on the matters those officials are assigned to decide in their role. Similarly, the depiction of our criminal justice system places the jury in an almost sacrosanct role in its determination of the outcome of a case.
There are checks and balances on officials’ exertion of there authority and rules against the abuse of the jury system, but how those guardrails of the system are invoked over time gives us a shared understanding of when those checks, balances, and rules come into play.
On two days last week — April 6 and 7 — there were three moves that highlighted how tenuous that understanding of democracy can be, and how the norms of that “shared understanding” can be ignored by officials who can at least claim the power to do so.
In Tennessee, lawmakers on April 6 expelled two young Black men — Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — from the Tennessee House due to their participation in a gun control protest the week before. The protest itself followed the March 27 shooting at a Nashville school that left six people dead — including three students.
The legislature considered expelling a third lawmaker, a white woman, but did not, ultimately, vote to expel her — a distinction that the woman, Rep. Gloria Johnson, said came down to race. That the two men used bullhorns, while Johnson did not, was used by some to justify their differential treatment, but almost anyone with a basic understanding of history — in Tennessee or elsewhere — could see that expulsion was not an appropriate response to the protest.
Jones is already back in the House, given an interim appointment by local officials until a special election can be held. Pearson also could be back as soon as today. [Update: Pearson was, in fact, reappointed later Wednesday.] But, the Tennessee House still expelled the two men, and they will have to seek re-election in special elections to “fill” the “open” seats.
A norm ignored.
In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz took a case away from recently elected Hennepin County Mary Moriarty, also a Democrat, on April 6 and gave it to Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, also a Democrat, at Ellison’s request.
Ellison and Walz have taken issue with Moriarty’s handling of the killing of Zaria McKeever last year. Two teens, 15 and 17, are accused of killing McKeever, and Moriarty’s office had offered them plea deals in exchange for testifying against McKeever’s ex-boyfriend in connection with her killing.
Moriarty compared Walz and Ellison’s actions to Florida and Missouri Republican statewide officials, who have aggressively acted against Democratic prosectors in their states. Both Gov. Ron DeSantis and, before him, Rick Scott, took murder cases away from a locally elected prosecutor, Aramis Ayala, due to her decision not to seek the death penalty. Of Walz and Ellison, Minnesota Public Radio reported that Moriarty said, “[T]heir actions show they really don’t believe in democracy.”
A norm ignored.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott went a step further.
Daniel Perry was found guilty of murder on April 7, “almost three years after he shot and killed Austin protester Garrett Foster,” the Texas Tribune reported. Foster was part of the nationwide protests against police violence in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, and he was killed by Perry, who was driving for Uber in the area at the time.
There were conflicting accounts about the interactions between the two men and the case raised questions about the application of Texas’s “stand your ground” law, but — and please go read the Tribune story for more details — ultimately, the jury convicted.
The very next day, Abbott tweeted a statement questioning both the prosecution and jury actions in the case and announcing that he had already asked the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to review the matter. “I look forward to approving the Board’s pardon recommendation as soon as it hits my desk,” he concluded.
A norm ignored.
Law Dork with Chris Geidner brings you independent, reader-supported legal and political journalism that seeks to hold government and other public officials accountable. Support this reporting by becoming a free or paid subscriber today.