In an extraordinary move, Tennessee's Republican-led House will vote Thursday on whether to expel three Democratic lawmakers who recently led a raucous protest from the House floor calling for gun law reforms.
Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson acknowledge that they didn't follow the rules of order and decorum by speaking without being formally recognized. But they're facing a disciplinary measure that's only been used twice since the 1800s. Republicans have said the trio's actions amount to an insurrection.
If the expulsion vote follows party lines, the three Democrats will be removed from office: Republicans control the 99-member House with 75 seats. The trio, whom supporters call “The Tennessee Three,” have already been stripped of their committee assignments.
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Here's more context, and how we got to this point:
What's happening on Thursday?
Lawmakers began to take up the question of expelling three of their colleagues shortly after 1 p.m. local time. During the proceeding, loud protests could occasionally be heard from off the chamber's floor.
A motion was adopted to allow Johnson, Pearson and Jones 20 minutes each to speak on their own behalf, including time for their attorneys.
“What happened one week ago is that members ... shut the order of this institution down, silenced 7 million people,” said Rep. Johnny Garrett, the House majority whip.
Garrett played a seven-minute video of events from that day, over objections of Democrats including Rep. Joe Towns, Jr., D-Memphis, who spoke out against what he called a “stacked deal” and an “ambush.”
The video was a compilation of footage from that day and afterward — and because it included video shot on the House floor, Democrats said whichever member had taken the footage had likely violated House rules.
House protest followed Nashville school shooting
The expulsion vote is taking place one week after Reps. Johnson of Knoxville, Jones of Nashville and Pearson of Memphis used a megaphone to lead chants of demonstrators in the House gallery.
Days earlier, a 28-year-old assailant shot and killed six people at an elementary school in Nashville, prompting crowds of students and parents to visit the legislature, urging new controls.
Jones, Pearson and Johnson called out Republican leaders for not responding to the push for gun restrictions in response to the mass-shooting crisis in the U.S. They did so, they said, to amplify the voices of protesters and their constituents.
Hundreds of people came to the Tennessee State Capitol on Thursday to protest the vote and call for gun control, as WPLN's Lexi Marshall reports.
What are the 3 lawmakers saying?
Jones, Pearson and Johnson note that if they're expelled, more than 200,000 Tennesseans would lose the representatives they lawfully elected last fall.
“We are losing our democracy in Tennessee,” Pearson told WPLN. “This is another example of the erosion of democracy because we spoke up for gun reform. Because we spoke up for people and children who will never become state legislators, who will never graduate from high school and never get engaged, never be able to see or protest for their own lives because they've been killed by gun violence.”
“This was not an insurrection,” Johnson told WPLN. “We've had skirmishes on the floor that have taken this long to resolve, and there were never any consequences.”
Jones said on CNN that Republicans are using authoritarian methods to silence the opposition. “It's very concerning and it represents a clear and present danger to democracy all across this nation,” Jones said. “That should trouble us all.”
It is “morally insane,” Jones said, to prioritize punishing lawmakers over a procedural breach after a mass shooting at a school.
What are Republicans saying?
Republicans immediately criticized the three lawmakers for disrupting order and breaking procedural rules in the chamber, in a disruption they say lasted nearly an hour.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton compared the incident to Jan. 6: “What they did today was equivalent, at least equivalent, maybe worse depending on how you look at it, to doing an insurrection in the State Capitol,” he said.
Sexton also noted that Jones and Johnson had previously been “very vocal about Jan. 6 and Washington, D.C., about what that was.”
The three virtually identical resolutions to expel Jones, Johnson and Pearson accuse them of disorderly behavior that “reflects adversely upon the integrity and dignity” of the House.
What are the House rules around expulsion?
The Tennessee Constitution's Article II, Section 12 empowers the House to “punish its members for disorderly behavior,” and to expel members with a two-thirds majority vote.
If the expulsion effort succeeds, the lawmakers' seats would become vacant. Because the 2024 general election is more than 12 months away, the districts would hold special elections to fill the seats. The representatives' county commissions can also choose to appoint an interim lawmaker, who would serve until a special election is held.
Representatives who are expelled can return to their office — by being appointed by the commission and/or by running again. The state constitution also says a lawmaker can't be expelled a second time for the same offense.
Who else has been expelled?
Before Durham, the last expelled representative was Rep. Robert Fisher, who was voted out of the chamber in 1980 after being convicted of seeking a bribe in exchange for scuttling a piece of legislation.
“Where does courtesy stop and a bribe begin?” Fisher asked at the time.
Both of the votes to expel Durham and Fisher were overwhelmingly bipartisan.
In early 2022, the Tennessee Senate voted to expel Sen. Katrina Robinson, after she was convicted of wire fraud — “the first time the chamber has removed a senator since at least the Civil War,” the Associated Press reported.
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