Breaking News
More () »

Tennessee House votes pass to expel Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson, Nashville Rep. Justin Jones, vote against Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson fails

The expulsions are extraordinary moves the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In an extraordinary act of political retaliation, Tennessee Republicans on Thursday expelled two Democratic lawmakers from the state Legislature for their role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. A third Democrat was narrowly spared by a one-vote margin.

The split votes drew accusations of racism, with lawmakers ousting Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, who are both Black, while Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, survived the vote on her expulsion.

Banishment is a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War. Most state legislatures possess the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.

Jones, Pearson and Johnson joined in protesting last week as hundreds of protesters packed the Capitol to call for passage of gun-control measures. While demonstrators filled galleries, the three Democrats approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant.

The protest unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where six people were killed, including three children.

“We are losing our democracy. This is not normal. This is not OK,” Pearson told reporters as he waited to learn whether he would be banished too. The three “broke a House rule because we’re fighting for kids who are dying from gun violence and people in our communities who want to see an end to the proliferation of weaponry in our communities.”

Johnson, a retired teacher, said her concern about school shootings was personal, recalling a day in 2008 when students came running toward her out of a cafeteria because a student had just been shot and killed there.

“The trauma on those faces, you will never, ever forget. I don’t want to forget it,” she said.

Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol on Thursday to support the Democrats, cheering and chanting outside the House chamber so loudly that the noise drowned out the proceedings.

The trio held hands as they walked onto the House floor, 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.

If expelled, Jones vowed that he would continue pressing for action on guns.

“I’ll be out there with the people every week, demanding that you act,” he said.

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.”

The two expelled 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. They also would be eligible to run in the special election.

“We’re definitely going to run for this position again, and serve in this state legislature, because the people sent us here, the people brought us here,” said Justin Pearson shortly after getting expelled.

Pearson later went on to say, “I know it’s still possible, when we do have an end to gun violence, when we do see justice, when we do see justice rolling down like rivers and righteousness, like an ever flowing stream, where the faith that we have and have nurtured in our family for generations is why I still have faith and hope in what our democracy can be.”

Under the Tennessee Constitution, lawmakers cannot be expelled for the same offense twice.

Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar advised Jones, who is Black, to be more collegial and less focused on race.

“You have a lot to offer, but offer it in a vein where people are accepting of your ideas,” Kumar said.

Jones said he did not intend to assimilate in order to be accepted. “I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to make a change for my community,” he replied.

Fielding questions from lawmakers, Johnson reminded them that she did not raise her voice nor did she use the bullhorn as did the other two, both of whom are new lawmakers and among the youngest members in the chamber.

But she also suggested that race was likely a factor on why Jones and Pearson were ousted but not her, telling reporters that it “might have to do with the color of our skin.”

That notion was echoed by state Sen. London Lamar, a Democrat representing Memphis.

Lawmakers “expelled the two black men and kept the white woman,” Lamar, a Black woman, said via Twitter. “The racism that is on display today! Wow!”

After sitting quietly for hours and hushing anyone who cried out during the proceedings, people in the gallery erupted in screams and boos following the final vote. There were chants of “Shame!” and “Fascists!”

Lawmakers quickly adjourned for the evening.

Outrage over the expulsions underscored not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents, but its increasing willingness to do so.

In Washington, President Joe Biden blasted the GOP’s priorities.

“Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action. It’s shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent,” Biden tweeted.

In response to what took place during the legislative session on Thursday, Republican lawmakers said in a statement:

Credit: Tennessee House Republican Caucus

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 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.“

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 criticism from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.

Past expulsion votes have taken place under distinctly different circumstances.

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.

Credit: WATN
Tennessee St. Reps. Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones arrive with arms high for the expulsion vote Thursday in Nashville.
Credit: AP
Former Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, raises his fist on the floor of the House chamber as he walks to his desk to collect his belongings after being expelled from the legislature on Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Credit: WATN
Ahead of an expulsion vote in the gallery at the Tennessee House, St. Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis gives a hug to a mother of a student from Covenant School in Nashville.
Credit: AP
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises his fist after visiting with supporters in the gallery of the House chamber Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
Credit: AP
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, raises his fists on the floor of the House chamber to recognize his supporters before the start of the legislative session Thursday, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

Before You Leave, Check This Out