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Two Tennessee State Legislators Return After Expulsion

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posted on 2023-07-28, 18:11 authored by Grace Higgins

On Thursday, April 13, 2023, Rep. Justin Pearson was sworn back into the Tennessee House of Representatives [1]. He was the second of two ousted legislators to be sworn back into office. The first, Rep. Justin Jones, was sworn back into office on April 10 [2].

Rep. Pearson, 28, won a special election in January to represent parts of Memphis. He gained political prominence when he opposed a pipeline that was proposed to run through south Memphis [3]. Rep. Jones, 27, won the election in November to represent parts of Nashville. He earned support through his role as a community leader. He is an activist who has organized sit-ins at the capitol and protests in the Summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd [3].

The representatives were expelled because they participated in a protest against gun violence on the House floor. Rep. Gloria Johnson also joined the protests on the floor but she was not expelled [4]. The protests followed a recent shooting at a Nashville elementary school that killed six people, three of which were nine years old [5].

On March 30, 2023, Rep. Johnson, Rep. Jones, and Rep. Pearson spoke without recognition by the Speaker and chanted “No action, no peace.” Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson also used a bullhorn to engage the crowds in the gallery [3]. The protests interrupted the legislative session for about 50 minutes [4].

On April 6, 2023, the Tennessee House voted to expel Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson [6] [7]. Rep. Johnson avoided expulsion by one vote [4]. She believes she was spared because of her race [8]. She is white while both Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson are Black.

The House voted to expel on grounds that the representatives broke decorum by speaking without recognition, crowding around the clerk’s desk, and using signs with political messages [4] [6] [7]. The Tennessee House Rules of Order state that the Speaker has the authority to set guidelines for decorum and the Tennessee Constitution allows the House to punish its members for disorderly conduct [9] [10].

The Tennessee Constitution also allows the local legislative body to replace ousted officials [11]. On April 10, the Nashville Metropolitan Council voted unanimously to reinstate Rep. Jones [12]. Two days later, on April 12, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners voted to reinstate Rep. Pearson [2].

The House’s decision to oust Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson ultimately did not affect the composition of the legislature. The move to expel appeared more politically motivated than substantive.

According to an article by the National Conference of State Legislatures, formal disciplinary measures against representatives are rare and regarded as drastic. It is more common to reach an informal solution to a breach of conduct [13]. Formal disciplinary measures are also typically reserved for radical behavior, such as criminal conduct or extremely unethical behavior [14].

The representatives’ actions did not fall under the extreme behavior that generally warrants formal disciplinary action. Their actions may even serve as useful to bring light to an issue that the Tennessee House has not addressed properly. With 169 mass shootings this year, the country should pay more attention to the issue of gun violence [14].

Ousting elected officials also can become problematic for democracy. Removing an elected official from office for a minor offense demonstrates that the people’s voice does not outweigh the motivations of a political agenda. The process of filling empty seats also takes time and attention away from legislative issues and slows down the process of passing bills important to constituents.

The expulsion of Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson sets a dangerous precedent for other states. Hopefully, their expulsion will be an isolated incident that will not ripple across the divided legislatures of the country.

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American University (Washington, D.C.); Juris Mentem Law Review

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This Article is brought to you for free and open access by the Juris Mentem Law Review. This article has been accepted for inclusion in the Juris Mentem Digital Collection. The Digital Collection is edited by Juris Mentem Staff but is not peer-reviewed by university faculty. For more information, visit: https://www.american.edu/spa/jlc/juris-mentem.cfm Questions can be directed to jurismentem@american.edu

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