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Remedial Ed

Civics test for Tennessee state legislators? It’s time.

by and

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Our Tennessee General Assembly scores pretty low on basic civics, if recent legislative statements are any indication. Law-making in the state legislature should be predicated upon passing a civics test; those who are elected (and pass the test) are seated in the legislature. Those who fail should not be given the daunting responsibility of writing the laws that govern the people of our great state.

Stacey Campfield
  • Stacey Campfield

Maybe it's elitist to assume our legislators have attended school and ... learned things. Senator Stacey Campfield's (R-Knoxville) recent statements certainly call into question his understanding of constitutional amendments, concepts covered in elementary school. The Tennessee legislature recently passed a bill that allows U.S.-born children of undocumented people to pay in-state tuition. It's actually a nonsense bill because U.S.-born children are U.S. citizens; they're granted the privilege of paying in-state college tuition in the state of their residency. But Campfield publicly questioned whether U.S.-born children of the undocumented are citizens. He doesn't think so. Of course, the authors of this op-ed believe the moon is made of Swiss cheese — but we don't discuss this in public.

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868, establishes citizenship for anyone born on United States soil. It's a simple, practical proclamation designed, at the time, to grant citizenship to African Americans and other American-born slaves who were freed in 1865 via the 13th Amendment. Some people in the 1860s did not consider former slaves full citizens: The 14th Amendment cleared that up. In 1868. End of story.

Next, we would administer our civics test to Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown). We know Kelsey graduated from a pretty good law school (Georgetown!), so we're surprised at some of his recent political decisions and observations. For example, Kelsey's sponsorship of SB 2566 (which would allow individuals or organizations to refuse goods and services that further same sex unions) resulted in much negative press that went viral and national. Kelsey, a smart man with outsized political ambition and panache for political pandering, pulled his sponsorship from the bill to dampen the political firestorm he ignited. Evidently, he never learned about the Equal Protection clause in the 14th Amendment while attending law school.

The Equal Protection clause guarantees the equal application of laws against all persons within a state, and certainly singling out gay people for discrimination would be contrary to this clause. We're confident that they teach the 14th Amendment and Equal Protection at Georgetown Law School. We suspect the institution frowns upon discrimination. Of course, if we were good investigative journalists, we'd head up to Washington to study the Georgetown curriculum, but we're busy. And we're not journalists.

Finally, just last week, state Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mount Juliet) sought an expansion of the 2009 Tennessee Firearms Act to include a provision protecting Tennessee-manufactured guns from the reach of federal firearms laws. The bill never made it out of the legislature because the "Supremacy Clause" of the U.S. Constitution means that federal statutes trump state law. Why would an elected Senator from our state challenge Article VI of the United States Constitution? Maybe she never read the Constitution. Senator Beavers also advocates for the direct election of our Appellate Court judges because the influence of money in politics has worked out so well for our democrac process. Why not extend this practice to the judiciary?

Ultimately, it's important that those who make laws in Nashville understand the fundamental core of our Constitution — lessons taught in elementary school, middle school, high school, college, and in law school.

Just because these lessons are taught doesn't mean they're grasped. We think state legislators should have a firm and realistic understanding of constitutional procedures, rather than one based in politics and, apparently, magical thinking. Our civics test, we hope, will force law makers to study some of the basics of law and legislation. In the end, a civics test might not stop all of the nonsense, but we'd like to see some state legislators — as the grades roll in — roll on out of Nashville.

(Bryce Ashby is a Memphis-based attorney and board chair at Latino Memphis, Inc.; Michael J. LaRosa is an associate professor of history at Rhodes College.)

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