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The Tennessee legislature’s expulsion of two Black Democrats is unprecedented and undemocratic

Republicans voted to remove Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two Black men, but declined to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman.

The image depicts many arms raised in protest, and hands reaching up from a crowd to take photographs on cameras and phones.
Democratic state Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville and Justin Jones of Nashville raise their arms in defiance after a vote that expelled Jones from the governing body on April 6, 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.

In a rare and shocking move, the Tennessee state legislature voted to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Black men, for protesting for gun control. They declined to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white woman, who had engaged in a similar action, however.

By a 72-25 vote, the Republican-dominant legislature voted to remove Jones from office, and by a 69-26 vote, they moved to do the same with Pearson. The vote to expel Johnson failed 65-30. The effort — which needed a two-thirds majority to pass, or a 66-vote threshold — is unprecedented.

It’s also undemocratic. Jones and Pearson were expelled not for breaking the law, but after leading student activists in gun control chants from the House floor. In the process, tens of thousands of voters who they represent in Nashville and Memphis, respectively, were disenfranchised.

House Republicans justified their actions by saying that Jones and Pearson — along with Johnson — “knowingly and intentionally [brought] disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives” and that their chants broke chamber rules. The Democratic lawmakers acknowledged that they did violate certain rules around decorum, but argued they did so to speak out on behalf of their constituents who are frustrated by the lack of action on gun control.

Last week, Johnson, Pearson, and Jones joined thousands of students and parents who marched to the Capitol to call for gun reforms after three children and three adults were killed in a mass shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville. At one point, Jones and Pearson spoke on the House floor using bullhorns while accompanied by Johnson. Because they hadn’t been recognized to speak, the move was deemed a breach of the chamber’s rules.

The legislature’s decision to expel Jones and Pearson, but not Johnson, was said to be tied to the specifics of her role in the protest, and also seems to be the latest example of white Republican lawmakers in Tennessee targeting Black political power. According to the Tennessean, two attorneys who defended Johnson noted that she did not use the bullhorn to lead chants, though she stood alongside Jones and Pearson in support.

Multiple lawmakers called out the racist nature of the vote. “You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today. Two young Black lawmakers get expelled and the one white woman does not?” Pearson said afterward.

“The racism that is on display today! Wow!” wrote Democratic Sen. London Lamar on Twitter.

The treatment of the two Black lawmakers echoes past Republican efforts to explicitly curb Black political power via bills that would gut local policies of Democrat-led cities like Nashville and Memphis, both of which have sizable Black populations.

Only two lawmakers have been expelled from the Tennessee legislature since the Civil War, according to the Associated Press. The most recent expulsion was that of Rep. Jeremy Durham in 2016, over sexual misconduct allegations. Prior to that, Rep. Robert Fisher was expelled in 1980 for accepting a bribe to kill legislation. Pearson and Jones’ expulsions mark the first partisan removals in the state’s modern history and the only ones associated with a purported issue of decorum.

It’s possible both Pearson and Jones could get reappointed, however. Now, both their home county commissions are in charge of appointing interim representatives, which they could serve as. There’s also nothing to prevent the lawmakers from running for those same seats again, though it’s unclear if Republican leadership could try to bar them from getting sworn in.

The resolutions to remove the lawmakers, briefly explained

Republicans in the legislature filed Jones, Johnson, and Pearson’s expulsion resolutions following a gun control protest last Thursday when thousands of activists came to the Capitol in Nashville to call for reforms.

Currently, Tennessee has expansive gun rights and limited gun control, with the legislature and governor pushing laws in 2021 that enable more people to carry handguns without a permit. The Republican-led legislature has also signaled it’s unlikely to do more on the issue in the near term.

“They came out this week and said they aren’t going to hear any more bills this year to address gun violence,” says Brynn Jones, a Vanderbilt student and organizer with March For Our Lives.

During the protest, Johnson, Jones, and Pearson — who represent Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis, respectively — went onto the House floor amid a legislative session and led protesters in the upper gallery in chants like “gun control now,” using a bullhorn. Republicans had said that this behavior was disruptive and warranted expulsion. The Tennessee Constitution gives both chambers leeway in determining how they punish their members, though expulsion has only typically been used for unique and serious violations, like bribery and sexual misconduct.

In this case, Republicans argued that Democrats had broken multiple House rules including speaking without being recognized and crowding the House clerk’s desk. Speaker Cameron Sexton noted that Democrats violated principles of “decorum and procedure on the House floor,” and went so far as to compare the gun control protest misleadingly with an “insurrection,” rhetorically linking lawmakers’ peaceful protest at their workplace with rioters’ deadly break-in at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. The three Democrats had already been stripped of their committees following their participation in the protests.

Jones, Pearson, and Johnson have said they protested to give attention to people’s concerns about gun control and the lack of action on it in the legislature. “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 in a letter to House members, which he posted on Instagram. Both Pearson and Jones were first-term members, while Johnson was elected in 2018.

Although the Democrats have said they broke rules about decorum, they’ve argued doing so was necessary to attempt to avoid future child gun deaths, with Jones using the term #GoodTrouble to reference the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis’s calls for civil rights activism. Their party has also pointed out that the consequences the lawmakers have already faced are very different from how Tennessee Republicans have treated issues within their own party. In the past, Republican leaders declined to expel members like state Rep. David Byrd, who was accused of child sexual abuse, and former House Speaker Glen Casada, who has since been indicted on charges of fraud and bribery.

“There should be a fair proportionate response regardless of party affiliation,” says Vanderbilt political science professor Samar Ali.

Republicans’ actions send a chilling message

The introduction — and passage — of the expulsion resolution against Jones and Pearson sends a chilling message about free speech, democratic representation, and efforts to suppress Black political power. It also means that Jones and Pearson’s districts, which include more diverse constituencies, are stripped of the members that were democratically elected this past fall.

“These representatives are coming from some of the most diverse counties,” Ezri Tyler, a Vanderbilt student and March For Our Lives organizer said of the effort ahead of the vote. “Even just looking at the state legislature, they are trying to remove one of [few] women representatives and two young Black representatives in a majority white old male body.”

That expulsion would disenfranchise Tennesseans has specifically been cited by Republicans in the past as to why they’ve refrained from expelling their members. And the Democratic lawmakers, who’ve been dubbed the “Tennessee Three,” have warned that the Tennessee GOP’s actions will create a model for the party to follow in other states.

“It will echo across the country. I think it will have a chilling effect on all states where there’s supermajorities or very red states,” Rep. Gloria Johnson told Politico.

Beyond any potential effects outside the state, the debacle also sends a disturbing signal about lawmakers’ openness to even discussing gun control since it shuts down dissenting voices. “What’s clear is that this is an effort to undermine a conversation that has taken a long time to be had in Tennessee,” says Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Update, April 6, 9:15 pm ET: This story was originally published on April 5 and has been updated with the results of the vote.

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