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Tennessee House advances bill to ban reappointing lawmakers booted for behavior

One of the Legislature’s staff attorneys expressed concerns about the bill last week, telling House members at a committee hearing that it raises constitutional questions.
Justin Jones during a legislative session in Nashville, Tenn.
State Rep. Justin Jones, pictured during a legislative session in Nashville, Tenn., this month, was expelled from the House last year after he held a pro-gun-control protest on the chamber floor.George Walker IV / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republicans in the Tennessee House voted Monday to advance a bill that would prevent local governments from reappointing state lawmakers who were expelled due to behavior.

The proposal is one of several restrictions being considered after the GOP’s high-profile expulsion proceedings last April against Democratic state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. It would bar what happened after: Jones and Pearson were reappointed and quickly went back to work.

One of the Legislature’s staff attorneys expressed concerns about the bill last week, telling House lawmakers during a committee hearing that it raises constitutional questions and suggesting proposing the change to voters in a constitutional amendment instead.

Rep. Johnny Garrett, a Goodlettsville Republican who sponsored the bill, argued that the Tennessee Constitution would allow the change.

“I believe that the language is absolutely clear,” Garrett said.

Toughening restrictions on expelled lawmakers likely will face more scrutiny in the Senate, where Speaker Randy McNally says his chamber will await the House’s action before considering any of the proposals.

Pearson, who proposed multiple amendments that were voted down, said the proposal amounted to a government overreach that strips constitutional power from local officials.

“Truthfully, I am so tired of the retaliatory, racist reaction of bills targeting Rep. Jones and myself,” Pearson, of Memphis, said just before Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton ruled his comments out of order.

Jones, of Nashville, was not called on to speak about the bill before Republicans cut off debate and voted on it.

He was ruled out of order twice and lawmakers voted to cut his comments short during two other proposals Monday. They included a Republican resolution about the U.S.-Mexico border that Jones said sends the kind of message that encourages white supremacists to come to Tennessee, including when neo-Nazis recently marched at the state Capitol, which prompted bipartisan condemnation from lawmakers.

Jones then said, “Some may argue that this is a neo-Nazi rally happening every time we convene in this body,” prompting the vote that his comments were out of order.

Jones and Pearson, two young Black lawmakers, were expelled for waging a protest on the House floor last April calling for gun control just days after a Christian elementary school shooting in Nashville killed six people. They and Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson joined chants by protesters in the public gallery and outside the chamber.

Johnson, who is white, was spared from expulsion by a single vote after her legal team argued her role was lesser, noting she didn’t use a bullhorn. The Democrats were dubbed the “Tennessee Three” and drew national attention and fundraising.

Republicans are also proposing constitutional amendments for voters that would ban lawmakers from returning to office after they were expelled. One proposal floats a four-year ban. The other would make it lifelong. Both Pearson and Jones easily won special elections months after they were reappointed.

Johnson is hoping momentum carries over into her uphill run for Republican U.S. Marsha Blackburn’s seat. At the same time, Johnson is running for statehouse reelection.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are also pushing forward on a proposed bill that would keep Johnson from appearing on the ballot multiple times for different offices in one election. It would also prohibit holding multiple elected offices at once. Republicans have said Johnson isn’t being targeted.

In the wake of the expulsions, Tennessee House Republicans also installed new rules this year that limit how long lawmakers can debate bills and restrict members deemed “out of order” from speaking, potentially for a couple of days for some repeat offenses.

Jones has sued over his expulsion and a temporary special session House rule that Republicans applied to silence Jones for part of one day in August.