MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WREG) — President Joe Biden, lawmakers, and other leaders are reacting after Republican members of the Tennessee House of Representatives voted Thursday to expel two Democrats, including Memphis’ Justin J. Pearson, for breaking rules of decorum during a protest last week.
The vote to expel Pearson was split along party lines 69-26, removing him just two weeks after he was sworn in.
A week after three Tennessee state representatives Justin J. Pearson, Justin Jones, (D-Nashville), and Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) engaged in protest, they returned to the same chambers hoping to avoid expulsion after allegedly breaking numerous rules during a House floor demonstration on March 30th.
“My prayer to you is that even if you expel me that you still act to address the crisis of mass shootings because if I’m expelled, I’ll still be out there with the people, every week, demanding that you act,” said Jones.
The protest was inspired by tragedy after a school shooting in Nashville left six people dead, prompting them to use a bullhorn on the House floor and join protesters in calls for gun control.
“We committed no crime. We did nothing but came to this floor to say we need to listen to the constituents who are asking for us to end gun violence,” Pearson said.
Nonetheless, removal is rare for the House of Representatives. It has only been used a few times since the Civil War, but many in the body believe it’s necessary.
“Just because you don’t get your way, you can’t come to the well, bring your friends and throw a temper tantrum with an adolescent bullhorn,” said Rep. Andrew Farmer (R-Sevierville).
“The rules here are for order, we owe that to the constituents that we represent across this state,” said Rep. Johnny Garrett (R-Goodlettsville).
After several hours of debate, a super majority of Republicans voted in favor of expelling Pearson and Jones. Johnson survived expulsion by one vote.
“No matter what happens, I’m alright. I want y’all to know who remained that each of you have an obligation to stop turning the people’s house into your own club,” Pearson said.
Tennessee House Republicans posted the following statement on Twitter hours after Thursday night’s vote:
“Today is a sad day for Tennessee. This body has determined formal expulsion for two of its members is the only path forward after they led disrespectful and deliberate efforts to disrupt the business of the house of March 30. Their behavior violated multiple permanent rules of order, in addition to state law.
Unprecedented actions yield unprecedented consequences. Unfortunately, we were obliged to levy unprecedented consequences on those members today. Our focus continues to be on the six innocent lives that were brutally taken last week at the Covenant School, not those who have chosen to make this tragedy about themselves.
If elected to come back and serve their constituents in the Tennessee House of Representatives we hope they will act as the thousands who have come before them – with respect for our institution, their fellow colleagues, and the seat that they hold. We look forward to continuing to defend the voices of ALL Tennesseans.”
Despite being expelled, the two are still eligible to return to office if they win a special election, and state law prevents them from being expelled for the same offense twice.
As for what’s next, the county commission gets to pick a replacement until a special election is scheduled. There is no word yet as to when that will happen or who will it be.
President Joe Biden along with some lawmakers and leaders expressed their support for Pearson and Jones following their expulsion. See full statements below:
President Joe Biden
“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.”
Former President Barack Obama
“This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”
Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-9)
“As a longtime state Senator and current Member of Congress, I appreciate that certain rules of decorum are necessary for conducting the people’s business in our state legislature. But I view the expulsion votes today as a provocative and disproportionate response to the breach of House rules prompted by the emotions triggered by last week’s Covenant School shooting. I was pleased to see the effort to expel Representative Johnson fail. I wish cooler heads would have prevailed and prevented the disenfranchisement of the citizens of Memphis and Nashville the expulsions create, in addition to the special expense state taxpayers will now have in scheduling primary and general elections. Debate on the proper response to gun violence is an essential part of the democratic process. Today’s votes were an embarrassing stain on an important democratic institution.”
Tennessee State Senator Raumesh Akbari
“My Lord, Rep. Jones has been expelled. The voices of the people has been silenced. Democracy has been squashed. I cry tears of sadness & frustration for what my state has become. This unprecedented move disrespects the body of the #TNleg. It’s a hard day to be a state legislator”
Van Turner, NAACP Memphis Branch President
“This was a political lynching and it happened right before our eyes on national television. I stand with these State Representatives just as I know millions of others do too.
On the heels of the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther king, we all must continue to fight for the ideals that we are all one. One community. One nation. Instead, Tennessee Republican legislators are trying to turn back the hand of time. We must take a stand and immediately call on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to reappoint Representative Pearson back to the seat he was duly elected to by the constituents of House District 86!”
Civil Rights Attorney Ben Crump
We will continue standing with @brotherjones_ and @justinjpearson following their expulsion from the Tennessee legislature! Keep fighting, keeping standing for what’s RIGHT! #Tennessee3
Tennessee Democratic Party
“The unthinkable occurred on the floor of our State Capitol today. Two duly elected Democratic State Representatives were expelled from their elected positions by the Republican House majority.
Their expulsion sets a dangerous new precedent for political retribution. The day that a majority can simply expel a member of the opposing party without legitimate cause threatens the fabric of democracy in our state and creates a reckless roadmap for GOP controlled state legislatures across the nation. This is not only unacceptable but a complete breakdown of our political system.
We condemn and will continue to fight that radical decision until each of our members return to their seats in the State House of Representatives – where the people sent them to serve.”
Hendrell Remus, Tennessee Democratic Party Chair
“Today, the nation had a front row seat to the fight that is happening in the south. The nation had an opportunity to see what we are up against in red states with Republican supermajorities. This was not only a direct political attack on our party but it was also an insult to the voters of Tennessee and erosion of our democracy at the state level.”
Kathy Sinback, ACLU-TN Executive Director
“Over the course of this legislative session, the Tennessee General Assembly has systematically eroded the rights of some of the most vulnerable communities in our state. These expelled lawmakers represent over 136,000 people – predominantly people of color – in districts across the state, and this expulsion strips these voters of their representation.
Furthermore, only a small minority of Tennessee legislators are people of color. Not only is this targeted expulsion of two Black legislators without due process an extreme measure that undermines democracy, it raises questions about the disparate treatment of Black representatives, while continuing the shameful legacy of disenfranchising and silencing the voices of marginalized communities and the Black lawmakers they elect.
This unprecedented, authoritarian effort to silence opposition sets a dangerous precedent that could threaten democracy in statehouses across the country. We will continue to fight for a state where all Tennesseans have a voice and are treated justly and equitably.”
JB Smiley, Jr., Vice Chair of the Memphis City Council
“The Shelby County Commission must immediately return Representative Justin J. Pearson to the Tennessee General Assembly. This is a sad day for Tennessee. The Republican Super Majority in the Tennessee General Assembly has put its knee on the neck of democracy in this state and in this country. I hope people will hold the dishonorable representatives who voted to expel Representative Pearson accountable for their actions and recognize that they have a total disregard for the thousands of constituents affected by such actions.”