Why The Republicans Got It Wrong Expelling Democratic State Legislators In Tennessee

Civil Rights Policy Brief #72 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | April 12, 2023

Header photo taken from: cnn.com/Cheney Orr/Reuters

Policy Summary

On March 27, 2023 a shooter entered The Convent School in Nashville, Tennessee and killed six people. Three of the victims were nine – year old students with the other three victims adults who were employees of the school. On March 29, protesters staged a peaceful protest at the Tennessee Capitol building demanding a solution to gun violence.

On March 30, three Democratic members of the Tennessee House disrupted the proceedings of the chamber to illustrate that the House chamber was not listening or being responsive to calls for gun reform. The Democratic members were State Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both black, and State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman. On April 6, 2023 the House chamber took votes to determine whether to expel any of the three members. The House voted 72 – 25 to expel Justin Jones. The House’s vote was 69 to 25 to expel Justin Pearson. And, when the House voted whether to expel Gloria Johnson the vote was 69 to 26 in favor, which was one vote shy required to kick her out of the House chamber. Rep. Johnson was permitted to keep her seat while the seats occupied by Rep. Jones and Pearson is now vacant.

Under the Tennessee Constitution, any vacancy in the seat of a state legislative member will be filled on a temporary basis by the legislative body of the county where the seat is vacant. This means that the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners will appoint a successor until a special election will be held to determine who will hold the seat. Initial reports have indicated that the county legislative bodies will reappoint Justin Jones and Justin Pearson to the state House seats.

  • Learn more about protesters demanding change at the state capitol.
  • Learn more about Tennessee lawmaker, Justin Pearson, who is expecting to be reappointed after unprecedented expulsion.

Why The Republicans Got It Wrong Expelling Democratic State Legislators In Tennessee

Photo taken from: pressdemocrat.com/AP Photo/George Walker IV

Policy Analysis

Why was the expulsion of two state legislative members in Tennessee significant?

While many legislative chambers have rules on seating and disciplining members of their chamber, the expulsion of two Democratic and nearly another Democratic member was no ordinary action. The action was taken as retaliation for the political position of the three members and actions the two expelled members took to express a message that was the focus of a protest that was occurring just outside the Tennessee Capitol building. It was an exceedingly rare move that has not been seen in state United States statehouses for more than one hundred fifty years.

At this time, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee have a supermajority in both chambers of the state Legislature. What this means is that their majority is not simply more than half but high enough to overcome any opposition from the opposing party. It is even large enough to overturn a veto from Republican Governor Bill Lee should he decide to veto a bill (not likely). Currently, the Tennessee House membership is comprised of 75 Republicans and 24 Democrats prior to the expulsion of Reps. Jones and Pearson. The Tennessee Senate is made up 27 Republicans and 6 Democrats.

The reason why the expulsion was an extraordinary move is because the move was taken to silence legislators who were trying to say something that the Republican leadership simply did not want to hear. But this diminishes the legislative process because it subverts the will of the voters who decided that these are the two people who will be their representative and who will bring their message to the state capitol. Yet the Republican majority decided that they did not want to hear the message of gun reform and instead voted to kick them out and deny them access to the chamber for the rest of the term. In effect, they told the two legislators that their political position is not good enough for them to serve as a state legislator.

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Photo taken from: pbs.org

However, the Tennessee Constitution provides that legislators have a “liberty to dissent from and protest against, any act or resolve which he may think injurious to the public or to any individual, and to have the reasons for his dissent entered on the journals.” Legislative chambers are a place of competing ideas and, hopefully, compromise and so different ideas and positions are encouraged in order to find the best solution possible. However, here the Republicans completely ignored that and took measures to expel members because they just so happened to have a position that the Republicans did not approve. They could have censured the lawmakers or even delivered a statement that the Republicans simply disagreed and left it at that. Expulsion was unnecessary especially when Republicans had a supermajority in the chamber. What the Republicans did here was try to suppress a message. This is a dangerous road to go down because it could seem to set a precedent that only the Republican message is the “right” message for a legislator to have. Informed and civil dissent is no longer to be tolerated is what the Tennessee House seems to be saying to the rest of the country.

However, it seems likely that the two expelled House Representatives will have the last laugh. Even though they were expelled, the Tennessee Constitution permits the county legislative councils to appoint an interim successor. And it looks likely that both Reps. Pearson and Jones will be re-appointed by their respective county councils.

In late breaking news, the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted unanimously (36 members) on Monday April 10 to reinstate Rep. Justin Jones to the Tennessee Legislature. Within an hour of the vote, Rep. Jones was sworn in and immediately marched back into the House chamber to applause. As for Rep. Pearson, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners will hold a vote on Wednesday April 12 whether to reappoint Rep. Pearson. While his reappointment seems likely, it probably will not be unanimous, as a commissioner has indicated that she may not support a reappointment at this time.

Learn more about Ousted Tennessee legislator Justin Jones reinstated after Nashville council vote.

Learn more about Tennessee House GOP expelling 2 Democrats in retaliation over gun control protest.

Learn more about Tequila Johnson’s opinion on Democracy in Tennessee.

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Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available

msnbc logo

MSNBC Report – report from news site detailing how Reps. Jones and Pearson were targeted for removal by the Tennessee GOP for months prior to vote on expulsion.

NPR logo

National Public Radio (NPR) – analysis of whether other state houses will follow and vote to expel members for their political positions.

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