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The return of two expelled Tennessee Democrats is a powerful rebuke to Republicans

Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson have both been reinstated to their seats by local county commissions.

A Black man in a suit raises his arm while walking in a crowd.
State Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville raises his fist after being reinstated to his seat on April 10, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Seth Herald/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Democrats who were recently expelled from the Tennessee legislature over their participation in a gun control protest, have both officially been reinstated to their old seats. Jones was reinstated by the Nashville Metropolitan Council by a 36-0 vote on Monday, and Pearson was reinstated by the Shelby County Commission by a 7-0 vote on Wednesday. Jones was sworn back into his old seat on Monday evening, while Pearson is set to be sworn in this week as well.

Jones and Pearson’s reinstatements counter Republicans’ efforts to silence them and their advocacy for gun control. “Today we are sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence,” Jones told a crowd on the Capitol steps on Monday. “Today we send a clear message to Speaker Cameron Sexton that the people will not allow his crimes against democracy to happen without challenge.”

Under Tennessee law, local county commissions are in charge of appointing an interim replacement following a lawmaker’s expulsion. As laid out by the state constitution, Jones and Pearson — both of whom are Black men — are able to return to the legislature once reinstated.

Jones and Pearson’s returns follow their stunning expulsions from the legislature last week, which quickly became flashpoints in ongoing national debates about democracy and race. Tennessee Republicans previously argued that the lawmakers’ behavior in a gun control protest warranted removal from office because it violated House decorum rules. Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a white woman who also participated in the protest, was not expelled, however, because Republicans claimed her role was less disruptive.

Given the GOP rationale and context, Jones and Pearson’s expulsions were criticized locally and nationally as being anti-democratic and racist. The decision disenfranchised roughly 140,000 voters in Nashville and Memphis who elected both lawmakers, and marked a rare use of expulsions in the state. Civil rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers repeatedly called Republicans’ decision to expel two Black men and not the white woman racist, a critique the Tennessee GOP denies.

Now, Jones’s and Pearson’s reinstatements serve as a powerful rebuke of Republicans’ unprecedented actions.

What’s next for Jones and Pearson

As of this week, Jones and Pearson are officially the representatives for their districts again.

The reinstatements are ultimately temporary, however. Tennessee law requires the districts of expelled lawmakers to hold special elections to officially fill their seats, and both Jones and Pearson are allowed to, and expected to, run again. “We will continue to fight for our constituents,” Jones said on Meet the Press this weekend.

Jones, Pearson, and Johnson faced expulsion resolutions because they went to the House floor during a recent gun control protest, with Jones and Pearson leading protesters demonstrating from the chamber’s gallery in chants using a bullhorn. Those actions violated House decorum rules, Republicans said, and justified their expulsion.

Jones and Pearson have said that they participated in the protests specifically to speak out for constituents who felt they were not represented by the Tennessee legislature’s inaction on the issue after the mass shooting in Nashville. The legislature has said it does not plan to take up any gun control bills this year.

The consequences they faced were unprecedented. Previously, the Tennessee House had only expelled two lawmakers since the Civil War, one for sexual misconduct and one for bribery. Jones and Pearson’s expulsions marked the first to take place because of a violation of decorum, and also the state’s first partisan expulsions in recent history.

GOP members have said they would recognize Jones and Pearson as members if they are reelected. In Tennessee, lawmakers also can’t be expelled for the same offense for a second time. “If after looking at [Jones’s] conduct, they vote he come back, we will recognize him as a representative,” Rep. Gino Bulso, one of the Republicans who introduced the expulsion resolutions, told the Tennessean.

The expulsions set a disturbing precedent

The expulsions of Jones and Pearson marked a shocking silencing by Republicans of those who vocally disagreed with them on gun control, and a blatant suppression of opposition voices by members of the majority party.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted, data suggests Tennessee was already the least democratic state in the US ahead of the expulsions. That same data found that GOP control of a state led to an increased embrace of anti-democratic tendencies. And those trends have some pro-democracy advocates — including the three Democratic lawmakers — concerned the Tennessee GOP’s actions may inspire other Republican-dominant legislatures to use their power to penalize or remove those who they don’t agree with.

The removals were also only the latest action by the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature that restricted Black political power in the state.

Republican lawmakers have introduced bills intended to cut the size of the Nashville City Council in half, and to undermine proposals aimed at police reforms in Nashville, Memphis, and Knoxville. Given the sizable Black populations in these cities, Democrats in the state argue many of these proposals are efforts to dilute the voices of Black voters and elected representatives from these areas.

“Welcome to Tennessee, where there’s a pattern of racism that has permeated these halls,” state Rep. Vincent Dixie of Nashville told NBC after the lawmakers’ expulsions.

Pearson and Jones have both called out Republicans’ actions as disenfranchising their constituents and emphasized that they’re undeterred in their ongoing advocacy for gun control. Now reinstated, they’ve vowed to continue to push for these policies in the face of Republican hostility, and despite the fact their party does not have the votes to affect change unilaterally.

“This is one of the greatest tactics of voter disenfranchisement and voter oppression that I’ve ever witnessed,” Pearson said on ABC’s This Week. “The reality is we have a super-majority Republican legislature that doesn’t want to see progress, that prefers to listen to the NRA rather than the constituents.”

Update, April 12, 3:15 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 10 and has been updated to reflect Rep. Justin Jones’s and Rep. Justin Pearson’s reinstatements.

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