‘An abomination:’ TN House expels two Dems over gun protest, despite removal looking temporary

‘The Tennessee Three’ will likely be back in the Chamber

By: - April 7, 2023 10:29 am

Rep. Justin Jones, left, and Justin Pearson, right, were expelled from the Tennessee House. (Photo by John Partipilo of the Tennessee Lookout)

In a move without precedent, Tennessee House Republicans expelled two Democrats but failed to find the votes to kick out a third for violating the House rules on proper decorum.  Reps. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, were removed from the state House, while, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville remains.

The Republican supermajority accused the three Democrats of taking over the speaking podium and using a megaphone to lead chants from a crowd protesting the lack of action by lawmakers on gun violence after six were killed — including three children — in a mass shooting at a Christian school in Nashville less than two weeks ago.

The expulsion hearings occurred in record fashion, within just over seven days between the floor protest in question and the trio’s removal vote Thursday. The six-hour proceedings were punctuated with suggestions of racism, injustice and intolerance for dissent directed at the GOP majority. Jones and Pearson were among a small minority of lawmakers who are Black. Johnson is white.

“When I came to the well, I was not standing for myself, but my constituents,” Jones said. “For the thousands of Tennesseans gathered demanding this body act. I was most of all standing for those young people… all of who are terrified by the trend of mass shootings plaguing this state and plaguing our nation.”

There have only been a handful of expulsions in Tennessee legislative history, with most in recent memory involving criminal allegations.

The hearings for Jones, Johnson and Pearson occurred separately, with the proceedings taking nearly six hours, significantly longer than the 40-minute House recess caused by their protest.

Jones’ expulsion was up first, with 72 Republicans voting to boot the Nashville Democrat. Next up was Johnson, who garnered 65 votes, one short of the requirement after seven Republicans voted with all the Democrats to keep her. Pearson went last, receiving 69 expulsion votes.

Jones and Pearson’s removal is likely temporary, as local government bodies choose who fills the now open seats. Nothing stops the Metro Nashville Council or Shelby County Commission from reappointing either man to fill the vacancies until special elections later this year.

The Metro Council is nonpartisan, but a majority of members have already said they will reappoint Jones at a special called meeting announced late Thursday to take place next week. The Shelby County Commission has a Democratic majority and is expected to do something similar.

Jones and Pearson — both freshman lawmakers — will have to run in those special election to retake their seats, with both expected to do so.

Jones uses hearing to air grievances with Republicans

Republicans argued in all three hearings the Democrats members violated the House rules, and the seriousness of what they did required expulsion over a censure.

“You do not use the House floor to protest,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton said to reporters after the hearings. “There are rules. There are policies. There are procedures.”

After the floor protests last week, Sexton compared the action of the three to “maybe worse” than the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection. He voted in favor of expelling each member.

The hearing for Jones was particularly contentious, with Jones accusing the Republicans expulsion as race and gender motivated.

“The state in which the Klu Klux Klan was founded is now trying to silence two black men, and one of the only white woman in this body that is a Democrat,” Jones said during the hearing.

Republicans forcefully denied that the hearings were about anything other the members’ actions last week. Jones has irked many of them for what they say are his activist tendencies. The 26-year-old Democrat rose to prominence during the George Floyd protests in 2020.

Jones, Pearson and Johnson each left the chamber multiple times to address the crowd of protesters, who dubbed the trio the “Tennessee three.”

Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, who sponsored the resolution to expel Jones, said the body had no choice but to remove him because they would be inviting him to cause a “mutiny on the House floor” again if unpunished.

“He showed no remorse,” Bulso said during the hearing. “Let’s vote to expel him. That will send the case back the voters of Davidson County, and if after looking at his conduct, they find he should come back, we will welcome him back as a representative.”

Johnson survives by a lone vote, shocking the crowd

Johnson had arguably the best case against expulsion, as video showed she never used the megaphone or signs to encourage protests.

Johnson also brought a defense team of former Democratic Reps. John Mark Windle and Mike Stewart. 

Windle said many of the allegations in the expulsion resolution against Johnson were “outright lies.”

“The author of this document should apologize not to her, but to the state of Tennessee,” Windle said. “This is an outright fraud and an abomination in the United States of America. Not just Tennessee is watching, America is watching.”

Johnson, 60, faced the stiffest repercussions if the House removed her. House lawyers told her if expelled, she would lose her health insurance, and unlike her counterparts, she was unlikely to be reappointed between expulsion and a special election. The Knox County Commission has a Republican majority.

Pearson continued to advocate for gun reform to the very end

Pearson’s expulsion hearing followed Johnson’s survival, casting some doubt over whether Republicans would have the votes to oust him.

House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, questioned Pearson, complimenting Pearson but asked him to admit some fault.

“You don’t seem to believe any of us care about our constituents the way you care about yours,” Lamberth said. “Surely you can at least see how egregious it was to shut out other voices? You elevated yourself above the dead bodies that had not even been put in the ground yet.”

Lamberth had refrained from commenting on the other two expulsion hearings.

But Pearson remained committed to calling out Republicans for the lack of action on gun violence and what he classified as attempts to ignore the protesters.

“What about the voices of thousands of people who came here and said we needed to do something to end gun violence,” Pearson said in response.

Democrats cast doubt over much of the Republican legal justification for the expulsion.

Expulsions are rare events in Tennessee politics and usually involve a drawn-out process. The Tennessee Senate expelled Memphis Democratic Sen. Katrina Robinson for a felony conviction in 2022, with the legal proceeding taking months. In a bipartisan vote, the House expelled Franklin Republican Rep. Jerry Durham after an attorney general report found credible allegations of sexual misconduct.

Before that, the House expelled a member in 1980 for soliciting a bribe and six members in 1866 six members for trying to block the adoption of a constitutional amendment granting citizenship to formerly enslaved people.

Sexton said he felt the process was timely and remained steadfast in advocating for hearings Thursday, despite the condensed time frame and concerns over whether a rules violation was worthy of removal.

“You don’t need an investigation to look at what happened in real-time,” Sexton said.

Democrats spent a significant portion of the hearing poking various holes in the Republican arguments for kicking out their members.

Before the proceeding began, Republicans showed a seven-minute highly edited video of the floor protests. The central portion appeared to be shot from the House floor by another member.

Democrats argued the video violated House rules against live recordings during a session.

Sexton contended the chamber was in a recess, but that left the possibility that if the House session stopped, the three Democrats might not have broken decorum rules.

“Once the facts were sussed out, they were claiming that they violated the House rules anywhere from 4 to 15 seconds,” said House Democratic Caucus Chair John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville.

Republicans would not say who shot the video, but several Democrats accused Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, of shooting the video.

Lafferty and Jones were involved in a different incident earlier in the week. Jones filed a police report alleging assault against Lafferty. The report alleges Lafferty pushed Jones and grabbed his phone during Monday’s House session. The whole event was recorded by Jones. 

Several Democrats called for an investigation and expulsion hearing into Lafferty for violating House decorum rules. Republican leadership said a complaint would need to be filed before they investigated.

“We aren’t playing by the same rules in an even or fair manner,” Clemmons said.

The crowds Thursday matched those of previous days, but Republican leaders restricted the number of protesters who could enter the building.

Protesters filed the House gallery and remained silent for most of the proceedings until the end.

After Pearson’s expulsion, the crowd’s boos and chants of “shame on you” drowned out the Sexton and the House clerk as they tried to close out the session as fast as possible. Several protesters unveiled banners, and a group of students laid on the ground pretending to be dead as Republicans exited the chamber.

This story was originally produced by the Tennessee Lookout which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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Adam Friedman
Adam Friedman

Adam Friedman is a reporter with the Tennessee Lookout. He has a particular love for data and using numbers to explain all kinds of topics. If you have a story idea, he'd love to hear it. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 615-249-8509.

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