Tennessee House Republicans expel 2 of 3 Democrats over guns protest

Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.  (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and former Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises their hands outside the House chamber after Jones and Pearson were expelled from the legislature Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

NASHVILLE — Emotions ran high in Tennessee's Republican-controlled House on Thursday as the GOP supermajority voted 72-25 to expel Democratic Rep. Justin Jones, a Nashville freshman, and 69-26 to expel another freshman, Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, for engaging in an impromptu floor protest for stronger gun protections following the March 27 mass shooting of six children and adults at a private Christian school in Nashville.

But efforts to expel Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, failed to get the 66 votes necessary for removal. The vote was 65-30 with seven Republican members voting against removal of the often outspoken Johnson, a retired teacher, generating cheers from hundreds of students, parents and others in the balcony galleries lining the chamber.

House galleries were packed with at least 250 students, parents and other supporters chanting "fascists" and "our House" at Republican lawmakers as they adjourned after expelling Pearson, who earlier gave a rousing speech in defense of his actions. Hundreds of others chanted outside the chamber.

Pearson told Republicans "just because you have power doesn't give you the right to abuse it." He called it "horrible that a person elected just like you won't say hello to you." He criticized Republicans over for failing to act to curb gun violence as well as for anti-LGBTQ laws. He also noted the House is "not a place of debate for people who are LGBTQ and who wear beautiful daishikis."

That was an apparent reference to House leaders refusing to allow Pearson to be sworn in wearing a daishiki, a traditional African shirt. During House proceedings, he often wore a jacket over it.

Pearson, a social justice advocate, praised God for bringing him to an institution "built by enslaved people's hands and under the God, who praises those who have been martyred in life and excluded into this place." The audience erupted in cheers as Pearson spoke.

Earlier, Jones, also a social justice activist, defended his actions and condemned his soon-to-be GOP colleagues' looming action.

"The world is watching Tennessee, and what is happening here today is a farce of democracy, a situation in which the jury has already announced the verdict," Jones told the chamber.

Both Jones and Pearson are Black. Pearson was only sworn in last month, while Jones was sworn in in January.

All three lawmakers had exhorted crowds of children, parents and others who had come to advocate gun-control measures to chant gun-control slogans. Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to lead them in chanting. But Johnson said she made no use of the bullhorn.

Prior to the final vote on the resolution to expel her, Johnson read the names of the students and staffers who died at The Covenant School in Nashville as other Democrats joined her in the well.

"I've spent my life dedicated to helping children," said a tearful Johnson, her voice halting at times. "There are so many things we could do to change the trajectory of where we're headed: more school shootings, church shootings, theater shootings, Waffle House Shootings. It's happening everywhere, folks. There's one common denominator: it's the guns."

Following the vote, she told colleagues, "We've got to have the conversations, we've got to be allowed to stand up and speak for our constituents."

Republicans earlier surprised the three lawmakers as well as other Democrats by introducing video, which was not provided to the lawmakers, their attorneys or Democratic leadership in advance. Democrats questioned whether it was selectively edited and warned GOP colleagues what they were doing will echo well beyond the chamber.

"Not just the folks in this room are watching, not just the folks in the state, but the entire nation is watching," Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, told Republican members. "If you want to show the nation how things work in this state, go ahead. Or if you want to be fair, do the right thing."

Jones told Republicans "your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know your time is up."

He accused Republicans of allowing an "admitted child molester," a then-Republican representative and former high school coach, to continue serving despite accusations from former students that he had abused them sexually. Jones noted another member was convicted of domestic assault and there was no effort to remove him.

Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettesville, told Jones, "You approached the well and began to shout and speaker gaveled you out of order."

Rep. Gino Bulso, R-Brentwood, said Jones gave an "eloquent and compelling statement" of why he should be expelled.

"Clearly he wants to be expelled," Bulso, an attorney, said. "That's why he refers to you as a dishonorable house. He and the others effectively conducted a mutiny."

There are resolutions for all three lawmakers, similar except for their names.

The resolutions stated the three lawmakers "knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions" and moved in unison to the well and began shouting "without recognition" and after being called out of order proceeded to disrupt House proceedings for nearly an hour.

According to the expulsion resolutions, House rules include "preserving order, adhering to decorum, speaking only with recognition, not crowding around the clerk's desk, avoiding personalities, and not using props or displaying political messages."

Article II of the Tennessee Constitution says members of the General Assembly can dissent from and protest against any act they think could be damaging to the public or an individual. However, Article II also says each chamber of the General Assembly "may determine the rules of its proceedings, punish its members for disorderly behavior, and, with the concurrence of two-thirds, expel a member."

Democrats were furious when debate was cut off. Among them was Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga.

Area lawmakers voting yes for Jones' expulsion were Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, Esther Helton-Haynesm R-East Ridge, Dan Howell, R-Cleveland, Greg Martin, R-Hixson, Kevin Raper, R-Cleveland, Ron Travis, R-Dayton, and Greg Vital, R-Harrison.

The local lawmakers also voted in favor of the failed resolution to oust Johnson as well as to oust Pearson.

Hakeem raises questions

Hakeem questioned why his GOP colleagues were seeking to oust the three lawmakers.

"I think at one time or another we have all violated rules within this body," Hakeem said. "And I'm asking my colleagues again what are we getting out of it, if we don't have our wait (to speak on the floor) we're wrong?

"If we're going to be fair and equitable we need to see it from the eyes of the other person, my colleagues, three of them, were responding to the changes that many of our citizens feel we need to consider," Hakeem said. "What are we here for if we're not striving to address the needs of our people. ... I'm saying many of you in this body espouse to be children of God, our lord and savior Jesus Christ. What would Jesus do? Are we doing that in which our lord and savior would do."

He said Republicans' attitude that "the world will bend to whatever we need, that is not reality." What is, Hakeem added, responding to the concerns of children scared to go to school as well as parents "fearful" of sending them there.

"I remind you, we are in this together and what's being done here today does not bring us any closer together," Hakeem said.

Security was tight on the Capitol's second floor as the House convened at 9 a.m. CDT. Some 250 children, parents and others packed the House gallery to watch proceedings, holding signs advocating stricter gun control measures with one person holding a sign reading "Expel Lee."

It was a reference to Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who Democratic lawmakers and others say has not put forth what they feel are adequate responses to the attack in which three 9-year-olds and three adults died when a 28-year-old former student with reported mental health issues, shot their way into the building using semi-automatic weapons.

Hundreds more packed the second-floor foyer under more restricted space requirements as state troopers stood by. Earlier this week, demonstrators were ejected form the gallery as they shouted slogans.

Pearson asked gallery attendees to remain silent so they could remain. Other protesters outside the chamber chanted demands lawmakers approve gun-control measures. Hundreds more rallied before the Capitol outside in the rain.

(READ MORE: Gardenhire, Republican colleagues move Tennessee gun-related bills to 2024)

Earlier Thursday, the House approved a Lee administration measure that would provide funding to provide at least one school resource officer or in all public and charter schools. House Bill 0322 passed on a 95-4 vote Thursday.

Jones complained the bill doesn't even mention guns.

"This bill seems to be a Band-Aid," Jones said, "a white flag of surrender."

He criticized comments made recently by a lawmaker that he was willing to put tanks outside schools to protect children.

As Jones, a former Vanderbilt Divinity School student, began to quote a verse from Jeremiah, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, who last week likened Johnson, Jones and Pearson's take over of the House to the Jan. 6 incursion into the U.S. Capitol, cautioned Jones to stop quoting from the Bible and stay on discussion of the measure.

Democrats and thousands who have flocked to the state Capitol since the Nashville shooting are seeking "red flag" laws. These laws allow a family member or police to seek a judicial order barring the person from having firearms. They also are advocating for more requirements that people with guns in their vehicles have them locked securely. The measure also applies to boats.

Sexton told reporters following the vote that he had voted to expel all three members, noting he thought it was merited as trio disrupted proceedings for 45 minutes.

"Some of the members did not feel that Rep. Johnson should be expelled," he said.

"We put the articles up on Monday, had due process and the process worked today," Sexton said. "It's not about expelling or not expelling. The process is you gave them each due process, they had the chance to defend themselves, members had the chance to ask the questions and then there was a vote. Based off the vote and the evidence presented and the testimony of those three individuals and one had her attorneys, the votes were tallied. And that's what happened."

The speaker also said it's possible both Jones and Pearson could eventually return to the House through election or appointment.

Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, an attorney, agreed.

"There is a path back," he said.

The rarely invoked procedure to expel a member was last used in 2016 when most Republicans and Democrats joined together to oust then-Rep. Jeremy Durham, a Franklin Republican, on a 70-2 vote over allegations he had sexually harassed at least 22 women, including sending unwelcome suggestive texts.

Prior to that, Rep. Robert Fisher, R-Elizabethton, who was kicked out of the House in 1980 after being convicted of soliciting a $1,000 bribe in exchange for trying to squash pending legislation. The House voted 92-1 to oust Fisher. Before the vote, a select committee heard testimony in the Fisher case and voted unanimously for his removal.

Further back, six lawmakers were expelled during Reconstruction.

One of them was a Chattanooga representative, James R. Hood, a co-editor of the Chattanooga Gazette, who was elected as a "pro-unionist" but sought to thwart proceedings against former Confederates.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-285-9480.

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