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Two Tennessee state representatives expelled by House

By Sarah May on
 April 7, 2023

Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives joined forces Thursday to expel Rep. Justin Jones (D) along with Rep. Justin Pearson (D) from the body due to their respective roles in a gun control protest that took place on the floor of the chamber last week, as the Associated Press reports.

A third Democrat, Rep. Gloria Johnson, was also the subject of a motion for expulsion, but Republicans fell one vote short of the threshold required for her removal.

Breach of decorum

As the Washington Examiner reported at the time, days after a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville left six victims dead late last month, hundreds of protestors amassed outside the Tennessee State Capitol to demand stricter gun control measures.

Joining in the demonstration were the three aforementioned Democrats, who shouted, pounded on the podium, and used a bullhorn in the well of the House in amplification of the protestors' demands, as CNN reported.

That conduct, according to the Republican sponsors of the expulsion resolutions, amounted to violations of the chamber's decorum rules and warranted the legislators' removal.

The trio of Democrats “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions,” the resolutions declared, as ABC News noted, with some GOP lawmakers asserting that the legislators were attempting to incite insurrection.

Lawmakers expelled

As Reuters explains, Jones was expelled from the chamber by a vote of 72-25, while Pearson's removal was achieved by a vote of 69-26.

When it came time for House to determine Johnson's fate, Republicans failed to muster the 66 votes required for expulsion, and she survived the process in a vote of 65-30.

Johnson, it was noted, did not engage in the use of a megaphone for the purposes of leading protest chants during the demonstration, a fact which may have contributed to her narrow escape from the same fate as her two colleagues.

As Fox News noted, expulsion is a procedure the Tennessee legislature has used a mere handful of times going back to Civil War and given that it is typically used only in cases of extreme misconduct, critics of Thursday's outcome have declared it to be an unjust weaponization of the chamber's rules against the majority's political opponents.

Racism alleged

During and after the debate on the expulsion resolutions, the issue of race took center stage for critics of the result, given that Jones and Pearson are Black, and Johnson – the only one of the three to avoid removal – is white, as Reuters noted.

Following the contentious votes, Pearson told journalists, “You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today. Two young Black lawmakers get expelled, and the one white woman does not. That's a statement in and of itself.”

Johnson appeared to agree with that assertion, and when asked why she thought she retained her seat in the legislature while her colleagues did not, replied, “It might have to do with the color of our skin,” as Fox News noted.

The Congressional Black Caucus seemed to concur, holding an emergency meeting on Thursday and issuing a statement that declared, “The targeted expulsions of Rep. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson – two Black duly elected members representing minority districts – makes clear that racism is alive and well in Tennessee.”

Republicans defend move

Members of the House GOP who supported the Democrats' ouster held firm in their conviction that the three “effectively conducted a mutiny” in the chamber.

Referring specifically to Jones, Republican Rep. Gino Bulso declared, “The gentleman shows no remorse. He does not even recognize that what he did was wrong.”

“So not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to engage in mutiny on the House floor,” Bulso added, according to Fox News.

As NPR notes, the districts from which Jones and Pearson hail will hold special elections to fill the now-empty seats, though their respective county commissions have the power to appoint a lawmaker in the interim, and it is therefore possible that the legislators will be returned to their roles sooner rather than later.