Expulsion vote thrusts Tennessee politics onto the national stage, could set precedent

Tennessee’s Republican supermajority is poised to take the unprecedented move of expelling three Democrats as punishment for violating House decorum rules by using a bullhorn on the House floor to lead a protest calling for gun reform.

House members are expected to vote Thursday to remove Reps. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, from elected office after the trio brought the chamber to a halt for nearly an hour last week by speaking out of order following the deadly shooting at The Covenant School – a move House Speaker Cameron Sexton later likened to “an insurrection.”

“What they did was try to hold up the people's business on the House floor instead of doing it the way that they should have done it, which they have the means to do,” Sexton said. “They actually thought that they would be arrested. And so they decided that them being a victim was more important than focusing on the six victims from Monday. And that's appalling.”

House leadership has never overridden a member’s election for simply violating House rules. Only two House members have been expelled from the chamber since the 1800s, both after either criminal charges or sexual misconduct allegations. Both of those times, in 1980 and 2016, followed special committee inquiries and were bipartisan votes.

The expulsion vote — along with the deadly Covenant shooting and subsequent demonstrations — has thrust Tennessee and its politics onto the national stage, drawing attention from Republicans and some of the highest-ranking Democrats in the country.

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Tennessee State Representative Justin Jones of Nashville speaks into a megaphone during a rally against gun violence on Thursday, March 30, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. With him are Representatives Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Justin Pearson of Memphis.

It has also given Tennessee Democrats a fundraising opportunity while illustrating the power the Republican supermajority has over legislative business and even representation in Democratic districts. Experts say the expulsion vote will set a precedent for the Tennessee General Assembly going forward.

“They're trying to make us an example. This is a political lynching. But we will not back down,” Jones told reporters Monday, echoing words of expelled former Sen. Katrina Robinson, who at the time of her 2022 ouster called the GOP majority’s move “procedural lynching.”

If Republicans vote to remove the three members on Thursday, they might not be gone for long. The Tennessee Democratic Party is already fundraising to back the three in special elections. If constituents send them back, Tennessee’s Constitution does not allow members to be expelled twice for the same offense.

Previously: Tennessee GOP file resolutions to expel three Democrats who led gun reform chants on House floor

Political martyrdom rockets ‘Tennessee Three’ to the national stage

Jones, Johnson and Pearson — dubbed “The Tennessee Three” — have garnered international media attention since the protest and looming expulsion vote, sparking a trending hashtag on social media this week and drawing messages of support from some of the highest-ranking Democrats in the country.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre characterized the expulsion proposal as “shrugging in the face of yet another tragic school shooting” during a press conference Tuesday.

Thousands of students marched on the Capitol to "confront their lawmakers for their failure to keep them safe at school, and what did these Republican legislators do?" Jean-Pierre said. "They're trying to expel these three Democratic legislators who joined in the protests.”

Former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts joined numerous lawmakers across the country in sharing her support for the three, calling expulsion “infuriating and anti-democratic.”

Jones rhetorically claimed political martyrdom on Monday as he paralleled the trio’s behavior to that of “a revolutionary brown-skinned Palestinian named Jesus who engaged in good trouble” when he cleansed the temple before his crucifixion.

“Jesus engaged in an act out of decorum because he knew that the dignity of the people who were being dishonored was more important than decorum,” Jones said on the House floor Monday. “God is not pleased with injustice and that light will shine, and no matter what you do to us, we will not bow down.”

Rep. Justin Pearson, Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Gloria Johnson People hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville , Tenn., Monday, April 3, 2023.

On the flip side, the three have drawn ire from conservative media as Sexton has appeared multiple times on Fox News to criticize the interruption.

"[Jones] is trying to make this about the protestors. He's trying to make this about what people were protesting about. Their voices were not silenced. This has nothing to do with anything outside the House chamber," Sexton said Wednesday. "The three individuals stormed up to the well where you speak from without being recognized. Did not display decorum. They disrupted the proceedings, and we had to shut down. They pulled out a megaphone and started to lead the balcony in protests for the next 30 to 45 minutes. Their actions on the House floor rises to the level of expulsion. We cannot allow for these types of things to take place in the people's house."

Speaker of the House of Representatives Cameron Sexton looks up to the gallery in the House Chambers at the State Capitol Building in Nashville , Tenn., Monday, March 6, 2023.

Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, sponsor of the resolution to expel Johnson, roundly criticized the three during a podcast appearance on the conservative Daily Wire on Wednesday morning.

"They voluntarily disqualified themselves from further service," Bulso said. "Rather than comply with their oath to the Constitution and comply with the rules, they decided to go outside of the House and effectively shut it down. And so what we're simply doing is recognizing that they've voluntarily chosen to put themselves outside the House and formally expel them."

Meanwhile, both sides seem to be capitalizing off the controversy, either with political capital or campaign cash. Within hours of the House vote Monday, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus sent out a fundraising appeal to send the trio back.

“This behavior is dangerous — they’re operating like a fascist regime,” Remus wrote in a fundraising email sent Tuesday. “This is a radical abuse of power for clear political reasons. We need to be prepared to re-elect the Tennessee Three if they are removed.”

A separate GoFundMe set up to raise money for the group’s legal expenses had raised more than $20,000 as of Wednesday.

Precedent set for decorum-based removals

Expulsion of a member for a rules violation is unprecedented in the chamber’s 227-year history but could lay groundwork for future removals.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told The Tennessean that typically an ethics committee investigation occurs before an expulsion vote.

“Normally, expulsion from a legislature is an extreme sanction that involves indictment and conviction of a crime or a severe ethical violation,” Oppenheimer said. “Even when an ethical violation is incurred, lesser penalties of a reprimand or censure would be assessed in most cases.”

Compared with others who have been ousted from the legislature, Oppenheimer said the decorum violation “seems modest, almost to the point of being trivial.”

For example, in 2016, then-Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, faced sexual misconduct allegations and an attorney general's investigation. And in the Senate last year, Robinson was federally indicted in July 2020 and retained her seat and voting power for more than a year as her legal case played out before the Senate voted to remove her in February 2022 after her conviction.

“It would be incumbent on the Speaker to cite precedent for this type of action,” Oppenheimer said.

The three fight back

Johnson suggested on Monday she would consider a lawsuit if ultimately expelled, though she declined to comment further on what legal remedy she thinks she could pursue. House Democratic Caucus spokesperson Ken Jobe said Monday the three were exploring several options to respond.

David Raybin, a Nashville attorney, said legal precedent suggests the courts would not intervene in a legislative expulsion process. The issue has been “pretty well settled” in multiple cases in other states and federally, though not in Tennessee, when courts decline to weigh in on a “political question.”

Tennessee three: What to know about the House Democrats targeted for expulsion by Republicans

“The Constitution gives the House and the Senate the exclusive authority to discipline its own members. That's what's known as a political question under the Constitution,” Raybin said. “Ultimately, it falls under the separation of powers. The Constitution prevents the legislature from interfering too much with the courts. Similarly, the Constitution prevents the courts from interfering with the inner-workings of the Legislature. A court would decline to review that.”

Still, if expelled, the three members could theoretically regain their lost seats without seeking a legal remedy: There's nothing in the Tennessee Constitution preventing a person from seeking reelection for a lost seat or even being appointed as interim while the district awaits a special election. They also could not be punished a second time for the March 30 floor protest, if they're expelled for that incident on Thursday.

“The only reason they wouldn't be able to run again or be reelected again is if they were disqualified, such as, theoretically, being convicted of a felony,” Raybin said.

Meanwhile, after a tussle on the House floor Monday evening, Jones has filed a police report accusing Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, of assault.

Jones said Lafferty shoved him and snatched his phone away during a physical confrontation as the gallery was being cleared. He has shared video depicting some sort of confrontation between the two. In the immediate aftermath, other lawmakers formed a heated scrum around the two before the situation was defused.

In a statement, Lafferty did not deny pushing Jones but said the Democrat "shoved his phone in my face in a threatening manner."

"I reacted as anyone would," Lafferty said. "Attempts to characterize this as anything else are misleading and false. The three members who are in danger of losing their jobs are desperate to deflect attention away from their actions.”

Metro Nashville Police Department spokesperson Kris Mumford confirmed Jones filed the report Monday night, but the department declined to release the report due to the ongoing investigation. A detective has yet to be assigned but will be, Mumford said.

Vote illustrates GOP control over both lawmaking and representation

Expelling three elected members from the legislature illustrates the iron grip of the Republican supermajority has on both legislative business and representation — even in Democratic districts.

The General Assembly is already prepping for the expulsions: Johnson on Thursday confirmed legislative staff informed her she would lose health insurance if expelled, though she was advised of a previous situation where a lawmaker retained his state insurance by resigning before he could be expelled.

The vote comes one year after the GOP-controlled body redrew congressional districts to divide Davidson County into three, paving the way for three Republicans to represent the Democratic stronghold in Congress.

It also follows Republican efforts this year to reduce the size of Nashville’s Metro Council by half, overhaul membership of Nashville’s Airport Authority and Sports Authority boards and end special tax authority around Nashville’s convention center.

Outside the Tennessee State Capitol Building in Nashville , Tenn., Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.

“Expulsion will be seen by some as punishing dissent,” said Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “The legislature has some options when it comes to boisterous behavior in its chambers. It can view the chanting and shouts as an emotional reaction to a community tragedy and recognize the important role the right of petition plays in American society, while reprimanding errant lawmakers without eliminating their voices and viewpoints.”

Sexton initially stripped Johnson and Jones of their committee assignments as a sanction. But presiding over the vote also demonstrates Sexton’s power over both House procedure and membership and energizes his conservative base.

It’s still possible that expulsion will not happen on Thursday — Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, asked colleagues to back down and pray about the vote before session on Thursday

“Every one of us, whether you were in the scuffle or whether you were part of creating martyrs out of other members — this is not us,” Parkinson said. “We didn't look like leaders a few minutes ago. We're bigger than that. We're better than that.”

Melissa Brown contributed to this report.

Reach Vivian Jones at vjones@tennessean.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tennessee Republicans push to expel lawmakers may set future precedent