Tennessee expulsion vote: 2 of 3 Democratic lawmakers ousted after gun protest, 1 allowed to stay

ByElizabeth Wolfe and Raja Razek, CNN
Friday, April 7, 2023
Tennessee expulsion vote: 2 of 3 Democratic lawmakers ousted after gun protest, 1 allowed to stay
In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Tennessee Republicans on Thursday expelled two Democratic lawmakers from the state Legislature.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Two Democratic members of the Tennessee House of Representatives have been expelled while a third member was spared in an ousting by Republican lawmakers that was decried by the trio as oppressive, vindictive and racially motivated.

Protesters packed the state Capitol on Thursday to denounce the expulsions of Reps. Justin Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson and to advocate for gun reform measures a little over a week after a mass shooting devastated a Nashville school.

Speaking to CNN's Don Lemon on "CNN This Morning," Jones decried the actions of House Republicans. "What happened yesterday was a very sad day for democracy," Jones said. "The nation was able to see we don't have democracy in Tennessee."

Jones confirmed if he is reappointed to the seat by the Nashville Metro Council, he would serve. "I have no regrets. I will continue to stand up for my constituents."

Following their expulsion -- which House Republicans said was in response to the representatives' leadership of gun control demonstrations on the chamber floor last week -- Jones and Pearson called for protesters to return to the Capitol when the House is back in session on Monday.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is White and wasn't ousted, slammed the votes removing Jones and Pearson, who are Black, as racist. Asked by CNN's Alisyn Camerota why she believes she wasn't expelled, Johnson said the reason is "pretty clear."

"I am a 60-year-old White woman, and they are two young Black men," Johnson said. She added that Pearson and Jones were questioned in a "demeaning way" by lawmakers before their expulsion.

Interviewed on "CNN This Morning," Martin Luther King III urged what he called a "resurrection of democracy," in response to the expulsions.

Referring to the school shooting in Nashville, King said the focus on decorum in the House chamber should be superseded by the need to address gun violence and the value of open debate. "I don't know that there should be an apology," King said. "These are young men who are fighting for democracy."

Following the three representatives' demonstrations last Thursday, Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton called their actions "unacceptable" and argued that they broke "several rules of decorum and procedure on the House floor."

Historically, the Tennessee House had only expelled two other representatives since Reconstruction, and the move requires a two-thirds majority vote of the total membership.

Thursday's expulsions have been criticized by Democratic politicians and civil liberties groups who say voters in Jones' and Pearson's districts have been disenfranchised. Others, including Jones, have said the move distracts from the real problem of gun violence.

"Rather than address the issue of banning assault weapons, my former colleagues -- a Republican supermajority -- are assaulting democracy," Jones told CNN. "And that should scare all of us across the nation."

President Joe Biden in a statement Thursday called the expulsions "shocking, undemocratic and without precedent," and criticized Republicans for not taking greater action on gun reform.

"Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly-elected representatives of the people of Tennessee," the President said.

Vice President Kamala Harris is traveling to Nashville Friday to renew the Biden administration's call for a ban on assault-style weapons, and meet with the two former Democratic state lawmakers who were expelled as well as the entire Democratic caucus.

The last-minute trip shows how much focus the Biden administration is placing on this issue and on gun control more broadly.

A White House official said Harris would "call on Congress to renew the assault weapons ban and ensure that in Tennessee and across the nation, the voices of our young people are heard."

Here's what we know about the expulsions and what happens next.

What led up to the expulsions

After a shooter killed three 9-year-old students and three adults at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville last week, Jones, Pearson and Johnson staged a demonstration on the House floor calling for gun reform and leading chants with a bullhorn.

Jones said he and the other lawmakers had been blocked from speaking about gun violence on the House floor that week, saying that their microphones were cut off whenever they raised the topic, according to CNN affiliate WSMV.

On Monday, three resolutions were filed seeking the expulsions of Jones, Pearson and Johnson. The three members had already been removed from their committee assignments following the protest.

The resolutions, filed by Republican Reps. Bud Hulsey, Gino Bulso and Andrew Farmer, said that the lawmakers "did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor" to the House.

Tennessee Republican Caucus Chair Jeremy Faison told CNN that the caucus believed the issue did not need to be considered by an ethics committee and accused Jones and Pearson of having a "history" of disrupting floor proceedings.

"It's not possible for us to move forward with the way they were behaving in committee and on the House floor," Faison said. "There's got to be some peace."

The chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party, Hendrell Remus, called the move a "direct political attack" on the party.

"Their expulsion sets a dangerous new precedent for political retribution," a statement from the party said. "The day that a majority can simply expel a member of the opposing party without legitimate cause threatens the fabric of democracy in our state and creates a reckless roadmap for GOP controlled state legislatures across the nation."

Rep. Sam McKenzie, chair of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators, said the expulsion of Jones and Pearson overshadowed the issue they were protesting.

"This was not about that kangaroo court that happened yesterday. This was about those three young children and those three guardians, those three adults, whose lives were taken away senselessly," McKenzie said.

"The world saw what happened yesterday," McKenzie added, condemning the actions of House GOP leaders. "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."

The NAACP also condemned the expulsions, calling them "horrific" but "not surprising."

"It is inexcusable that, while (Jones and Pearson) upheld their oath to serve Tennesseans who are grieving the loss of last week's mass murder, their colleagues decided to use racial tropes to divert attention from their failure to protect the people they are supposed to serve," NAACP President & CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

"We will continue to stand with these champions of democracy, and are prepared to take whatever legal action is necessary to ensure that this heinous attempt to silence the voice of the people is addressed in a court of law," Johnson added.

On "CNN This Morning," Jones said, "I think what happened was a travesty of democracy because they expelled the two youngest Black lawmakers -- which is no coincidence -- from the Tennessee state legislature because we are outspoken, because we fight for our district."

Jones described the session as a "toxic, racist work environment," and said he spoke out because the House speaker ruled him out of order when he brought up the issue of gun violence. "If I didn't know this happened to me, I would think that this was 1963 instead of 2023," he added.

Prior to the vote, Pearson publicly shared a letter he sent to House members in which he said he took accountability for "not following decorum" on the House floor but defended his actions.

"My walk to the House floor in a peaceful and civil manner was not an insurrection. I wanted to listen and respond to the voices of Tennesseans who were not given the opportunity to speak in meaningful dialogue with us," Pearson wrote, according to an image of the letter he shared on social media.

What happens next

Following their removal, pictures and profiles of Pearson and Jones have been pulled from the Tennessee General Assembly's website and their districts have been listed as vacant.

According to the Tennessee Constitution, since there is more than twelve months until the next general election in November 2024, a special election will be held to fill the seats.

Tennessee law allows for the appointment of interim House members to fill the seats of expelled lawmakers until an election is held by local legislative bodies.

In Jones' case, the local legislative body is the Metropolitan Council of Davidson County in Nashville. The council has scheduled a special meeting Monday afternoon to address the vacancy of the District 52 seat and possibly vote on an interim successor.

Jones told CNN's Don Lemon Friday that if he's appointed by the council, he will serve. "I have no regrets. I will continue to stand up for my constituents," he said.

For Pearson's District 86 seat, the local legislative body is the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Memphis.

It is unclear if or when a special meeting might be called there.

According to Johnson, Jones and Pearson could be reappointed to their seats.

"I think we might have these two young men back very soon," Johnson said Thursday. "It is my promise to fight like hell to get both of them back."

Pearson said he hopes to "get reappointed to serve in the state legislature by the Shelby County Commissioners, and a lot of them, I know, are upset about the anti-democratic behavior of this White supremacist-led state legislature."

Speaking to a crowd following their expulsion, Pearson and Jones insisted they would persist in advocating for gun control measures and encouraged protesters to continue showing up to the Capitol.

"They thought they won today, but they don't realize what they started," Jones said. "They started a movement they can't stop."

The former representatives also tore into Republican lawmakers for what they see as an elitist action that undermines democracy.

"We demand that democracy be for everybody, not just for rich White men in suits, not just for rich White people who got these positions of power perpetuating the status quo," Pearson said.

Expulsions of state representatives are rare

The House has only expelled two state representatives in the last 157 years. The first expulsion, in 1980, was of a representative found guilty of accepting a bribe while in office, and the most recent came in 2016 when another member was expelled over allegations of sexual harassment.

Democratic Rep. Joe Towns called the move a "nuclear option."

"You never use a sledgehammer to kill a gnat," Towns said. "We should not go to the extreme of expelling our members for fighting for what many of the citizens want to happen, whether you agree with it or not."

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Kathy Sinback, called the move in a statement a "targeted expulsion of two Black legislators without due process."

She continued, "It raises questions about the disparate treatment of Black representatives, while continuing the shameful legacy of disenfranchising and silencing the voices of marginalized communities and the Black lawmakers they elect."

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