House Republicans moved to expel Democratic Reps. Justin Jones (D-Nashville), Justin Pearson (D-Memphis) and Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) during a chaotic House floor session Monday evening.
The move comes as retribution for action the three representatives took during Thursday morning’s floor session, when they interrupted proceedings by walking to the front of the House floor and leading protesters in the gallery in calls for gun control with a bullhorn. Both the actions taken by the representatives and by the thousands of protestors who gathered at the Capitol that day were peaceful, with law enforcement later confirming no arrests were made and no damage was done. But that didn’t stop House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) from saying on a radio show that their actions were “maybe worse” than those of the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
After that radio appearance, Sexton clarified his statements following a press conference on Monday at which Republican leadership proposed $200 million in funding for school security as high schoolers rallied for gun control in the streets below. He clarified that he meant the “insurrection” was carried out by the three representatives, and that the peaceful protestors were not a part of it.
“They were not recognized,” Sexton told reporters. “I started speaking, and they pulled out a bullhorn and started making a protest on the House floor.”
Notably, four people died and dozens were injured during the Jan. 6 riot, which has led to the arrests of dozens of people around the country.
“We are members who were standing in the well telling the speaker and our colleagues that kids should not be murdered in school,” Jones said at a press conference Monday. “And rather than address that issue, the speaker has spent more time on Twitter this weekend talking about a fake insurrection than he did about the deaths of six people, including 9-year-old children.”
Jones was joined by Pearson and Johnson, who argued their actions were protected by the state constitution, which reads: “Any member of either House of the General Assembly shall have liberty to dissent from and protest against, any act or resolve which he may think injurious to the public or to any individual.” Johnson pointed to examples of hypocrisy in the legislature's past.
“I knew I was breaking a House rule,” Johnson said. “We've had folks on the floor for indictments. We've had admitted child molesters on the floor. We have had members that peed in each other's office chairs. We’ve had someone who has illegally prescribed drugs to their cousin-mistress. And nothing ever happened to those folks.”
Expulsions are a rarity in the Tennessee General Assembly. The last expulsion was that of Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham in 2016 over sexual misconduct. The only other member to be expelled since Reconstruction was Robert Fisher in 1980, who accepted a bribe to kill a bill. In February 2020, Johnson filed a resolution to expel Republican Rep. David Byrd over allegations that he sexually assaulted three teenagers in the 1980s — actions for which he later apologized. That effort failed.
The three also said they had not only been stripped of their committee seats by Sexton, but that they had also lost security access to the garage and the building.
The gallery was packed with protestors during Monday’s proceedings, and after multiple warnings over outbursts, Sexton eventually instructed state troopers to remove attendees from the halls. During the ensuing chaos some sort of physical altercation took place between Jones and Rep. Justin Lafferty (R-Knoxville), who in 2021 defended the Three-Fifths Compromise.
The vote to proceed with the expulsion hearing passed on party lines, and the House Democratic Caucus released a statement supporting their colleagues and denouncing the expulsion resolution. The expulsion vote will take place during Thursday morning's House floor session.