- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
Yells rang out through the state Capitol as Tennessee House Republicans on Monday introduced resolutions to expel three Democrats for "disorderly behavior" after the trio led protest chants for gun reform on the floor of the chamber last week in the wake of the deadly Covenant School shooting.
On Thursday, the three House Democrats approached the podium between bills without being recognized to speak, a breach of chamber rules. With a bullhorn, Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville and Justin Pearson of Memphis led protestors in the galleries in several chants calling for gun reform.
House leadership later likened the trio's behavior to an "insurrection," a characterization House Democrats decried last week.
The expulsion resolutions claim the three "did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions."
Final votes to expel the three members will occur Thursday. Johnson, Jones, and Pearson will have an opportunity to defend their actions during that session.
Tennessee legislative expulsions: From sexual misconduct to opposing rights of former slaves
The House chamber fell into chaos as Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, introduced the first resolution, which called for Pearson's expulsion. Protestors screamed from the galleries above. Pearson raised his fist in protest, and House Democrats raised their hands to object.
Amid the chaos, House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, called for the vote. All three resolutions passed in a party-line vote of 72 to 23. Democrats will have little power to block expulsions on Thursday.
Tennessee Capitol protest explainer: Here's what did and did not happen
Sexton did not recess the chamber as protestors in the gallery began chants of "fascists! fascists!" and wagged their fingers and fists at members. Instead, the speaker called for state troopers to clear the House galleries.
While the majority of the crowd cleared peacefully, one woman was handcuffed and carried out of the gallery by state troopers after she refused to follow commands and pushed a responding trooper, per Davidson County court records. She was charged with assault on a first responder, disorderly conduct and disrupting a meeting or procession.
It was the only arrest on Monday, when thousands of young people marched on the Capitol to call for gun reform, Tennessee Highway Patrol confirmed.
Meanwhile, on the House floor, Jones and Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, were taking phone videos of the gallery being cleared. A scuffle ensued between the two with Lafferty snatching Jones' phone away.
In response, a knot of lawmakers converged on the House floor in confrontation that took several minutes to cool down.
After House business resumed, Jones accused Lafferty of misconduct.
"Rep. Justin Lafferty pushed me and stole my phone, and tried to incite a riot with his fellow members in this section of the House. I have it on video, I will send it to you," Jones told Sexton.
Jones shared video with the Tennessean of the incident, which appears to depict a physical confrontation between the two lawmakers.
In a statement to The Tennessean on Tuesday, Lafferty did not deny shoving Jones or grabbing his phone.
“Representative Jones came to my desk and as I turned he shoved his phone in my face in a threatening manner. I reacted as anyone would," Lafferty said. "Attempts to characterize this as anything else are misleading and false. The three members who are in danger of losing their jobs are desperate to deflect attention away from their actions.”
Tonight as Tennessee House Republicans push forward to schedule vote on our expulsion, Speaker Sexton orders the gallery cleared as crowd chants “fascists.”
Media forced out at as well.
Then, Rep. Lafferty (R-Knox) pushes me and grabs my phone.
This is a sad day for Tennessee. pic.twitter.com/Lh08Ma5kdS
— Rep. Justin Jones (@brotherjones_) April 4, 2023
Democratic lawmakers push back
The trio were present and voted on bills Monday night. Together, they represent more than 210,000 constituents.
"We're going to push back, and we're gonna fight this because it's unprecedented and utterly ridiculous," Johnson said.
Johnson said she would consider a lawsuit if expelled, arguing their protest is constitutionally protected. She also pointed to a list of recent scandals involving lawmakers that didn't lead to expulsion, including the former House Speaker Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who is under federal indictment and former Rep. David Byrd, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenagers when he was a basketball coach decades earlier.
"We had a child molester on the floor for years, they helped him get reelected and did nothing to expel him," Johnson said. "We've had members pee in each other's chairs. We've had members illegally prescribe drugs to their cousin-mistress, and nothing happened. But talk on the floor without permission, and you'll get expelled."
Confrontation among democrats on the floor.
Troopers had to physically remove some of the protestors from the gallery.
The last are leaving now yelling “this isn’t over!” pic.twitter.com/sMnasYYmF7
— Vivian Jones (@Vivian_E_Jones) April 4, 2023
The House Democratic Caucus released a statement after Monday's votes, saying the caucus "stands firmly united" with its members.
"The Democratic Caucus has unanimously, formally voted to oppose the baseless resolutions for expulsion and will zealously oppose them should they come up for a vote on the House floor," the statement said.
Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators also issued a statement Monday night objecting to the resolutions.
'Impossible to sit idly by': Facing expulsion, Rep. Justin Pearson responds to colleagues
"This political retribution is unconstitutional and, in this moment, morally bankrupt," the group said. "The people who elected us are calling for meaningful action to end gun violence and the people have a right to be heard through their duly elected representatives."
The group said Sexton instead should be "leading a real, bipartisan discussion to generate reforms that could stop the next school shooting."
Floor protest by Democrats
The trio's floor protest last Thursday came just days after the deadly Covenant shooting that left three children and three school staff members dead.
House lawmakers on Thursday had to walk through a gauntlet of protestors, many of whom were teenagers, who had marched on the Tennessee Capitol demanding gun reform.
On the floor, Jones verbally sparred several times with Sexton. After the trio approached the well, the area in the front of the chamber where lawmakers speak, Sexton immediately recessed the chamber, halting legislative business for nearly an hour and ordering security to clear the House galleries of spectators.
Before the galleries were cleared, the Democratic trio led the crowd in chants of "gun reform now."
The trio later walked off the House floor after a heated confrontation with their own Democratic leadership, though leadership has since supported their actions. The House resumed its regular calendar, with the Democrats remaining on the floor.
Following the demonstration, Johnson, Pearson, and Jones' access to the Cordell Hull Legislative Office Building and member's parking garage was restricted. Johnson told reporters Monday that her building access badge had been deactivated, and she was unable to access the building to retrieve her mobility scooter over the weekend.
"No one told me that my garage pass was cut off. No one told me that my badge to the building was cut off," Johnson said. "My scooter was inside the building. I needed it at home. I don't always need it at home on the weekend, but I needed it this past weekend because there was a big downtown event."
Doug Kufner, a spokesperson for Sexton, confirmed access was restricted for the three members on Monday.
"Rep. Johnson was on limited access after her antics on Thursday," Kufner told The Tennessean. "A trooper is always on-site, and the number is posted on the door outside the garage. They could have helped her. Rep. Johnson could have also called her leadership team for her caucus, the clerk, the speaker's office, or HR if she has trouble accessing the building."
All three continue to have access to their offices and legislative staff. Both Pearson and Jones spoke on the floor Monday night.
Meanwhile, Sexton stripped Johnson and Jones of their committee assignments. Pearson does not serve on any committees.
"What they did was try to hold up the people's business on the House floor instead of doing it the way that they should have done it, which they have the means to do," Sexton said. "They actually thought that they would be arrested. And so they decided that them being a victim was more important than focusing on the six victims from Monday. And that's appalling."
Waiting outside the chamber on Monday night, Jones said a non-bipartisan expulsion vote would be "unprecedented."
The last time the House expelled a sitting lawmaker was in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-2 to remove then-Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, from the House for alleged sexual misconduct. At the time, it was the first expulsion since 1980 and only the second since the Civil War.
Robert Fisher was kicked out of the House in 1980 after being convicted of soliciting a $1,000 bribe in exchange to kill a bill. Six lawmakers were ousted during an 1866 special session after they tried to prevent Tennessee from ratifying an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide citizenship to former slaves.
Last year, for the first time in its history, the Tennessee Senate voted to expel a senator, stripping Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, of her elected position following her federal conviction on federal wire fraud charges.
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org and Vivian Jones at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee GOP begins process to expel lawmakers over gun control protests