Tennessee House ousts 2 Democratic lawmakers: What's next

The lawmakers still have the chance to return to office.

April 7, 2023, 11:25 PM

Former state Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were expelled from the Tennessee legislature Thursday after Republicans determined they breached the body's rules of decorum -- but their political careers are not necessarily over.

After the Covenant school shooting in Nashville that left six people dead, Jones and Pearson, along with state Rep. Gloria Johnson, stood at the well of the Tennessee House chamber last week to demand action. Leading chants, the trio joined thousands of protesters who descended on the state Capitol calling for tighter gun laws. While Johnson survived expulsion from the Republican-controlled House by only one vote, Jones and Pearson were removed and will not participate for the remainder of the legislative session.

But the two are not prohibited from holding office again and could even run for their newly-vacated seats. Here's what could be next for the ousted lawmakers and the state of Tennessee.

PHOTO: Tennessee State Representative Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones hold hands as they walk in the State House in Nashville, Tenn., April 6, 2023.
Tennessee State Representative Justin Pearson, Gloria Johnson and Justin Jones hold hands as they walk in the State House in Nashville, Tenn., April 6, 2023.
Reuters

A possible return to office

After their expulsions, Jones and Pearson's seats will become vacant, temporarily leaving tens of thousands of residents in Nashville and Memphis without representation in the state House of Representatives.

But the lawmakers can return to office -- either by being reappointed by their county commissions or running again. And with the 2024 general election more than a year away, their districts are expected hold special elections to fill the ousted lawmakers' seats.

The state constitution also says a lawmaker can't be expelled twice for the same offense.

The Nashville Metro Council already announced its plans to hold a special meeting next Monday to fill the vacancy left by Jones' expulsion, where they could reappoint him.

Nashville Mayor John Cooper, along with the majority of current Metro Council members, have expressed their support for Jones' return to office.

"I'm proud that Metro Council is meeting Monday to fill the vacancy left in Nashville by today's vote, & I believe they'll send @brotherjones_right back to continue serving his constituents," Cooper said in a tweet.

In response to the prospect of Jones returning to office, Speaker Cameron Sexton told journalists Thursday night: "I think that's the Metro Council's decision, not the mayor's decision. I think he'd probably recommend it to the Metro Council, but that's a Metro Council vote that takes place. But I will say is look, if they reappoint, we'll go through that process when the time comes."

Pearson also indicated his intention to remain politically active following his expulsion, tweeting late Thursday night: "We will not stop. We will not give up! We will continue working to build a nation that includes, not excludes, or unjustly expels" alongside a link to his campaign website.

PHOTO: Rep. Justin Jones delivers remarks on the floor of the House chamber, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Rep. Justin Jones delivers remarks on the floor of the House chamber, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
George Walker Iv/AP

The lawmakers seem to have support from high-profile Democrats nationally. President Joe Biden said in a statement that the move to oust the lawmakers was "shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent."

Vice President Kamala Harris met with all three privately at Fisk University in Nashville Friday. During her public remarks, she commended the Tennessee lawmakers for their "courage in the face of an extreme tragedy," delivering a blistering rebuke of Tennessee State House Republicans.

"We need leaders who have the courage to act at State Houses and in Washington DC in the United States Congress," she said. "Have the courage to act instead of the cowardice to not allow debate and to not allow a discussion on the merits of what is at stake."

"The racial dynamic"

The Tennessee state legislature has faced swift faced backlash for ousting its two youngest Black members while narrowly voting to keep the one other lawmaker -- a 60-year-old white woman -- facing expulsion.

In a hallway interview following his expulsion hearing, Pearson said it plainly: "You cannot ignore the racial dynamic of what happened today."

PHOTO: Former Rep. Justin Pearson raises his fists as he delivers his final remarks on the floor of the House chamber as he is expelled from the legislature on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Former Rep. Justin Pearson raises his fists as he delivers his final remarks on the floor of the House chamber as he is expelled from the legislature on April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
George Walker IV/AP

State Rep. Sam McKenzie, chairman of the Tennessee state House Black Caucus, similarly pointed to the "optics" of the Jones and Pearson hearings.

"I don't have to say a word about the fact that our two young African American brothers were unfairly prosecuted ... but they handled themselves like true champions," McKenzie said during a press conference Friday.

Johnson, who was first elected in 2012, acknowledged the apparent differential treatment she and her colleagues received during their hearings. In response to a question about why she survived her expulsion vote, she said: "I'll answer your question; it might have to do with the color of our skin."

Sexton pushed back on Johnson's claims.

"That's a false narrative on her part," Sexton said on Fox & Friends. "It's unfortunate. She's trying to put political racism in this, which there was nothing on this. They were all given due process."

During the expulsion hearings, Johnson was notably the only lawmaker to retain attorneys: John Mark Windle, a former Democratic lawmaker from Livingston, and Mike Stewart, a former Nashville Democratic lawmaker.

Johnson was also the only lawmaker to explicitly deny the factual basis of her expulsion resolution, specifically allegations that she "yelled" into a megaphone at the well, held political signs or pounded the table.

"I stood with my colleagues, I stand with my colleagues, and we may have broken a House rule coming to the well, but much of this document is false," she said.

While defending Johnson's actions in their opening statements, her attorneys also repeatedly cited her background as a longtime legislator and retired public school teacher.

"She's a sister. She's a daughter. She's an American. She's a Tennessee and she's a Farragut graduate. She's a graduate of the University of Tennessee and a Girl Scout," Windle said.

"Let me tell you what this lady is not. She's not a felon. She's not a misdemeanant. She's not a sex offender. She's not a target of a federal grand jury investigation. She's never had a single ethics violation," he continued.

PHOTO: Rep. Gloria Johnson delivers remarks on the floor of the House chamber, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Rep. Gloria Johnson delivers remarks on the floor of the House chamber, April 6, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
George Walker Iv/AP

Unlike Johnson, who has been in office for more than a decade, Jones, 27, and Pearson, 28, were recently-elected freshman representatives, both with long histories of activism.

And they're not new to civil disobedience in Tennessee. In February 2019, Jones staged a protest where he demanded the removal of a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the Tennessee state Capitol before being arrested. In 2020, he organized a 62-day sit-in protest for racial justice outside the state Capitol after the murder of George Floyd.

Pearson was also a prominent environmental justice activist in Memphis, where he co-founded the grassroots organization Memphis Community Against the Pipeline to oppose a crude oil pipeline proposed for South Memphis.

The lawmaker recently made headlines when he was reprimanded for not wearing a suit and tie during his swearing-in ceremony in February. Instead, Pearson wore a dashiki -- a traditional West African garment -- to honor his ancestors.

School security and gun control reforms

Even before the expulsions of Jones and Pearson, Republicans outnumbered Democrats 75-to-23 in the state House.

Now, Republicans have an even stronger hold on the body in the final weeks of a legislative session where increasingly hardline GOP members have wielded their supermajority to push through conservative priorities.

Following the Covenant School shooting, lawmakers in the state have stopped short of implementing stricter gun control laws and an assault weapons ban, instead focusing on increasing school security.

During Thursday's House session, the legislature passed HB322, a bill that requires schools to implement a number of safety plans and systems, including requiring locked doors and active shooter training for school security guards, over the opposition of the three lawmakers who faced expulsion.

"This bill is not about school safety," Jones said, adding the move to "make our schools militarized zones" is borne out of refusal "to address the real issue, which is easy access to military grade weapons."

Despite their expulsions, Jones and Pearson both said they remain resolute in pushing for gun control reforms in the state of Tennessee.

"Whether I'm a member on the inside or a community member on the outside, I will continue to stand with the people demanding change because this is not the end," Jones said.

"I'll continue to fight. My family will continue to fight," Pearson said. "We'll be back. I believe that Memphis and Millington are going to send us back. We're gonna keep fighting for our communities."

ABC News' Nakylah Carter contributed to this report.