Pearson votes, debate on hold for another swearing-in
Memphis rep ‘in transition’ after winning general election
Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, campaigning in his district on March 6, 2023, in Memphis. (Photo By Karen Pulfer Focht)
Forgive Rep. Justin J. Pearson if he’s not been too boisterous the last few days. The freshman House member from Memphis can’t vote, present bills or debate until he is sworn in again after winning the general election unopposed.
Under an obscure state law, the Shelby County Democrat isn’t allowed to do much but show up until he takes the oath of office following last week’s general election in which he picked up 443 votes.
What it amounts to is the Shelby County Election Commission spent tens of thousands of dollars to hold a special election, only to have the winner — who was appointed after winning the uncontested Democratic primary — sit and wait to be sworn in a second time.
The Secretary of State’s Office said Tuesday Pearson’s election certification has been transmitted to the House Clerk’s Office. It goes next to the House Speaker’s office to be scheduled for swearing in.
Pearson, who replaced the late Rep. Barbara Cooper in House District 86, said he’s glad to know the certification documents have made it to the clerk’s office, but he hasn’t been notified of a date to be re-sworn and points out District 86 remains without representation.
He took the oath earlier this year amid a good deal of rancor because he wore a dashiki and was accused of violating clothing protocol. Since then, he has continued to wear the dashiki on occasion but with a tie and suit coat.
Sitting quietly is not the community organizer’s style.
Pearson was frustrated but tight-lipped during Monday’s House floor debate on an abortion bill designed to provide some leeway for physicians to save the lives of women in deadly pregnancies.
He had no choice but to stay quiet and let others debate what he calls an “extraordinarily narrow as a pin needle” abortion bill. The measure defines legal abortions for ectopic and molar pregnancies but allows physicians to use “reasonable judgment” to end pregnancies to save the life of a mother.
“That’s something, reproductive rights, I know is really important in our district, but I can’t speak on it because I have to get re-sworn in. So I do think there needs to be a legislative fix for scenarios like this one, which may be rare in occurrence but have happened and do happen,” he says.
He notes District 86 has representation “in person” but not “in substance as it relates to votes and legislation” and believes an easy fix can be found.
That’s something, reproductive rights, I know is really important in our district, but I can’t speak on it because I have to get re-sworn in. So I do think there needs to be a legislative fix for scenarios like this one, which may be rare in occurrence but have happened and do happen.
– Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, of a recent abortion bill
Pearson knew he would have to be sworn in again after the interim appointment by the Shelby County Commission. He’s hoping all the paperwork can be signed by next week.
Members of the House Democratic Caucus were “pretty stunned” after he informed them about the vacuum of representation.
“The lack of representation is wrong, and we want to make sure every person in Tennessee has representation at the statehouse, as we’re constitutionally obligated to ensure, so any delay with that does not seem fair,” he says.
Pearson hasn’t been seated on any committees, either.
House Speaker Sexton said last week other lawmakers who replaced exiting House members weren’t given committee assignments. Sexton noted Pearson was “in transition” while having his election approved and paperwork signed by state leaders and couldn’t vote or speak in sessions.
“From being appointed to elected there’s a little constitutional problem right there, so we’re having to wait for the election to be certified,” Sexton said.
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