ABOVE PHOTO: From left, Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson, state Rep. Justin Jones and state Rep. Gloria Johnson hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at Tennessee state Capitol Building in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, April 3, 2023. In Tennessee, three Democratic House members are facing expulsion for using a bullhorn in the House chamber to show support for pro-gun control protesters. In an increasingly polarized political atmosphere, experts say these kinds of harsh punishments for minority party members standing up for principles they believe in will likely become more common, especially when acts of civil disobedience clash with the rigid policies and procedures of legislative decorum. (Nicole Hester/The Tennessean via AP, File)
By Kimberlee Kruesi and Jonathan Mattise
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee’s GOP-dominated House on Thursday expelled the first of three Democratic members who were at risk of being thrown out of the Legislature for their role in a demonstration calling for gun control after the Nashville school shooting.
The vote Thursday to oust Rep. Justin Jones was an extraordinary move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War.
The House was also considering ousting Reps. Gloria Johnson and Justin Pearson. The vote comes a week after the trio chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun-control supporters who packed the gallery. The protest happened days after six people, including three children, were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville.
House lawmakers voted 72-25 to remove Jones.
Thousands of people flocked to the Tennessee Capitol to support the three Democratic lawmakers, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber so loudly that the noise drowned out the proceedings.
The three Democrats held hands as they walked onto the House floor Thursday morning, and Pearson raised his fist to the crowd during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Offered a chance to defend himself before the vote, Jones said the GOP responded to the shooting with a different kind of attack.
“We called for you all to ban assault weapons, and you respond with an assault on democracy,” he said.
The calls for expulsion, which requires a two-thirds majority, stem from a protest held just days after six people, including three children, were fatally shot at The Covenant School in Nashville. Johnson, Jones and Pearson chanted back and forth from the chamber floor with gun-control supporters who packed the gallery.
Republican Rep. Gino Bulso said the three Democratic representatives “effectively conducted a mutiny.”
“The gentleman shows no remorse,” Bulso said, referring to Jones. “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.”
Even if they are expelled, the three lawmakers may not be gone for long. County commissions in their districts get to pick replacements to serve until a special election can be scheduled.
Any expelled lawmakers would be eligible for appointment back to their seats. They would also be eligible to run in the special election. And under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled for the same offense twice.
Outrage over the possible expulsion once again thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight, underscoring not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents, but also its increasing willingness to do so.
The move sends a chilling message just as lawmakers grapple with how to respond to the devastating shooting while others have raised concerns about undermining Democracy by overturning the will of the voters.s
In Washington, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the vote as “legislative bullying.”
“The fact that this vote is happening is shocking, undemocratic and without precedent,” she said.
Many of the protesters traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas that Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the Capitol building to get inside.
Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said, “School zones shouldn’t be war zones,” “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute” with a photo of George Washington, and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people.“
As the House began its proceedings Thursday, Democratic Rep. Vincent Dixie stood before his colleagues and urged them to “not get distracted.” He mentioned the funeral for Mike Hill, one of the Nashville school shooting victims, which took place earlier in the week.
“I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice that he made to keep those kids safe,” Dixie said. “Each of us has power to make change.”
Before the expulsion vote, House members debated more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit their building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticisms from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades earlier. Republicans declined to take any action, pointing out that he was reelected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-2 to remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.
NOTE: As of press time, the other two cases were pending
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