Black lawmaker who was expelled to return to Tennessee House
April 9, 2023
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — One of the two Black Democrats who were expelled last week from the GOP-led Tennessee House was reinstated Monday after Nashville's governing council voted to send him straight back to the Legislature.
The unanimous vote by the Nashville Metropolitan Council restores Rep. Justin Jones to office just four days after Republicans stripped him of his seat. Moments after the decision, Jones began marching to the Capitol several blocks away with hundreds of supporters.
"When they tried to bury us, they didn't realize we were seeds," Jones told supporters at the Nashville courthouse before the vote.
Republicans banished the two lawmakers over their role in a gun-control protest on the House floor in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting.
The other lawmaker, Justin Pearson, could be reappointed Wednesday at a Wednesday of the Shelby County Commission.
The expulsions on Thursday made Tennessee a new front in the battle for the future of American democracy and propelled the ousted lawmakers into the national spotlight.
Jones' appointment is an interim basis. Special elections for the seats will take place in the coming months. Jones and Pearson have said they plan to run in the special election.
Before the special council session was to begin, a couple of hundred people gathered in front of the Nashville courthouse, and more were pouring in. Some held signs reading, "No Justin, No Peace." Inside the courthouse, a line of people waited outside the council chambers for the doors to open.
Rosalyn Daniel arrived early and waited in line to get a seat in the council chambers. She said she is not in Jones' district but is a Nashville resident and concerned citizen.
"I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement, so I understand why this is so important," she said.
Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton's spokesperson, Doug Kufner, indicated that whoever is appointed to the vacancies by the Nashville and Shelby County governments "will be seated as representatives as the constitution requires."
House Majority Leader William Lamberth and Republican Caucus Chairman Jeremy Faison said they will welcome back the expelled lawmakers if they are reinstated.
"Tennessee's constitution provides a pathway back for expulsion," they said in a statement. "Should any expelled member be reappointed, we will welcome them. Like everyone else, they are expected to follow the rules of the House as well as state law."
Jones and Pearson quickly drew prominent supporters. President Joe Biden spoke with them, and Vice President Kamala Harris visited them in Nashville. The expelled lawmakers have filled out their legal teams. Eric Holder, who served as attorney general under former President Barack Obama, now represents Jones.
"The world is watching Tennessee," attorneys for Jones and Pearson wrote to Sexton in a letter Monday. "Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress."
A third Democrat targeted for expulsion, Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, also attracted national attention.
Political tensions rose when the three joined with hundreds of demonstrators who packed the Capitol last month to call for passage of gun-control measures.
As protesters filled galleries, the lawmakers approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The scene unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school where six people were killed, including three children.
Johnson, who is white, was spared expulsion by a single vote. Republican lawmakers justified splitting their votes by saying Johnson had less of a role in the protest — she didn't speak into the megaphone, for example.
Johnson also suggested race was likely a factor in why Jones and Pearson were ousted but not her. She told reporters it "might have to do with the color of our skin."
GOP leaders have said the expulsions — a mechanism used only a handful times since the Civil War — had nothing to do with race and instead were necessary to avoid setting a precedent that lawmakers' disruptions of House proceedings through protest would be tolerated.
Expulsion has generally been reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.