NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee House speaker said Wednesday his GOP supermajority won’t pursue a vote to expel a lawmaker accused of sexual misconduct decades ago, citing a state attorney general opinion that acknowledges the move isn’t prohibited, but cautions against it.
In deciding the fate of embattled Republican Rep. David Byrd, House Speaker Cameron Sexton cited the legal opinion that says “historical practice, sound policy considerations, and constitutional restraints counsel against” expulsion in the case of Byrd, whose alleged conduct happened before he was elected.
“After consulting with House leadership and our committee chairmen, we will heed Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s advice and not move forward,” Sexton said in a statement.
After the decision, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Michael Curcio, a Republican who has expressed openness to holding hearings about the Byrd allegations, said his panel would have needed Sexton’s directive to pursue any action on Byrd outside of the legislative session. That session begins in January and runs through the spring.
With the speaker not on board, however, it’s unclear whether the issue will be pursued.
“I have been advised by my legal counsel that as the legislature is not currently in session, no committee can take action without a charge from the Speaker of the House, and based upon the Attorney General’s opinion, the Speaker will not be granting such a charge to the House Judiciary Committee on this matter,” Curcio said in a statement.
The opinion Tuesday by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery comes nearly three months after Sexton requested for guidance on whether the House could expel Byrd for conduct that allegedly occurred decades ago. Activists had hoped the House would expel Byrd during a special legislative session over the summer, but Sexton helped held off on that movement by requesting the attorney general opinion.
“Historical practice, sound policy considerations, and constitutional restraints counsel against, but do not absolutely prohibit, the exercise of the legislature’s expulsion power to oust a member for conduct that occurred before he was elected and that was known to the member’s constituents when they elected him,” the attorney general wrote.
In the opinion, Slatery added: “Given those considerations, the expulsion power is best exercised only in extreme circumstances and with great caution.”
Specifically, Sexton requested information on whether a member can be ousted when voters were aware of the allegations before the latest election.
Slatery wrote that expulsion would essentially negate voters’ decision to reelect Byrd, so “the House must weigh its interest in safeguarding the integrity of its legislative performance against the deference and respect owed to the choice of the electorate before it expels the member.”
Byrd was reelected last year despite the sexual misconduct allegations that were first reported on publicly in early 2018. He reportedly told the GOP House caucus that would not seek reelection in 2020, but has refused to publicly confirm that decision.
He has faced increased scrutiny and calls for resignation after being accused by three women of sexual misconduct three decades ago when he was a high school teacher and coach. He was never charged. Two women alleged Byrd inappropriately touched them. The third said Byrd tried to.
Byrd has not denied the allegations outright, though he has said he’s sorry if he hurt or emotionally upset any of his students.
Byrd did not return a request for comment.
For Democrats and sexual assault victim advocates, the attorney general’s opinion renewed calls for action against Byrd.
“No more excuses. Time to schedule the hearings with the victims’ witnesses, and alleged perpetrator under oath,” said Democratic Rep. Jason Powell, of Nashville, in a tweet. “I was told on the House Floor this would take place after the AG opinion was issued.”