Skip to content Skip to footer

Tennessee Bill Seeks to Bar Localities From Reappointing Expelled Legislators

The bill appears to be a direct response to Republicans being unable to permanently expel two Black lawmakers in 2023.

Democratic state Rep. Justin Jones of Nashville gestures during a vote on his expulsion from the state legislature at the State Capitol Building on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tennessee.

After failing last year to permanently expel two Black state lawmakers over a protest for gun reform, Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives have advanced a bill that would bar the re-appointment of lawmakers to their formerly held positions.

Last spring, a trio of Democrats who became known as the “Tennessee Three” — Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson and Gloria Johnson — staged a protest on the state House floor, using a bullhorn to lead audience members in the gallery in chants. The protest, which lasted just a few minutes, was aimed at pressuring GOP lawmakers to agree to a set of gun legislation reforms following a mass shooting at a Nashville school a week prior in which three adults and three children were killed.

After Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton (R) recessed, the House reconvened an hour after the protest without further disruption. But the action so offended Republicans that they held votes to expel the Tennessee Three soon after.

Both Pearson and Jones, who are Black, were expelled. The vote to expel Johnson, who is white, fell short of the two-thirds majority required. Johnson herself recognized that she likely survived the expulsion vote due to racism within the GOP conference.

State law requires jurisdictions of House districts where vacancies occur to appoint someone to complete a lawmaker’s term. Both Jones and Pearson were reappointed by their localities to their positions.

House Bill 2716, sponsored by Republican Rep. Johnny Garrett — who also led the charge to expel the Tennessee Three last year — seeks to restrict local governments from reappointing lawmakers to their seats of power.

The bill passed the GOP-dominated state House of Representatives by a vote of 69-22, despite a legislative legal counsel warning lawmakers that it is likely unconstitutional. Republicans in support of the bill scoffed at those concerns.

“There’s always people who question the constitutionality of stuff. We’ll see,” said Sexton.

Debate on the bill prior to its passage was contentious, with Sexton blocking Pearson from completing his thoughts on the measure after he described it as a “racist reaction” to him and Jones standing up to the GOP last year. Jones was not allowed to speak on the measure at all.

Jason Powell, another Democratic state House member who opposes the bill, lambasted Republicans for seeking to pass a measure that wouldn’t be legal under the state’s highest governing document.

“This bill is unconstitutional, and my community is sick and tired of being pushed around by people who don’t respect the constitution,” Powell said.

To address the legality question, the state House also passed a measure that would enshrine the bill’s rule into the state constitution. That measure passed, but won’t be enforced until it is passed in the next session of the state legislature, after which voters must approve of it before it becomes law.

It’s anyone’s guess at the moment how Tennesseans would vote on the constitutional measure. A Vanderbilt University poll from last year didn’t specifically address that question, but did ask voters whether or not they believed the lawmakers should be expelled. The state was split, according to the poll, with a plurality, 49 percent, saying that it was wrong for Republicans to attempt to remove Pearson and Jones, and 46 percent saying they agreed with the move.

The poll suggests that Tennessee voters could also be upset by Republicans trying to deny local governments of the right to select whomever they want to fill legislative vacancies, including lawmakers who were expelled; this right is viewed as a “check” on the state legislature, protecting against political abuses by the majority party that largely has the ability to block voters’ preferences due to partisan gerrymandering.

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $43,000 in the next 6 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.