NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Monday evening, three Republican lawmakers filed resolutions seeking to expel three Democratic lawmakers from the Tennessee House of Representatives following their decision to protest on the House floor last Thursday, March 30.
According to the resolutions, Republicans have charged Reps. Gloria Johnson (D—Knoxville), Justin Jones (D—Nashville) and Justin Pearson (D—Memphis) with gathering at Johnson’s desk, moving “in unison to the well” and “shouting without recognition.”
They were “called out of order” but continued to “disrupt the proceedings of the House of Representatives from approximately 10:50 AM until approximately 11:42 AM,” during which time they “shouted, pounded on the podium, led chants with citizens in the gallery, and generally engaged in disorderly and disruptive conduct, including refusing to leave the well, sitting on the podium, and utilizing a sign displaying a political message.”
The resolutions further state Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to “amplify their protestations.” This behavior “constitutes disorderly behavior and justifies expulsion” from the House, according to the resolutions.
But how are lawmakers expelled?
In order to officially expel a fellow lawmaker from their seat, a formal resolution must be filed in that chamber. Reps. Andrew Farmer (R—Sevierville), Gino Bulso (R—Brentwood) and Bud Hulsey (R—Kingsport) filed the resolutions that would expel Pearson, Johnson and Jones, respectively.
Article II, Section 12 of the Tennessee Constitution allows the House of Representatives to “determine the rules of its proceedings” as well as to “punish its members for disorderly behavior.” Further, the Constitution states both chambers of the legislature may expel a member “with the concurrence of two-thirds” of the body.
The Permanent Rules of Order of the Tennessee House of Representatives further outline what conduct is and is not permitted by members on the floor and visiting guests in the gallery. It also stipulates the Speaker of the House is responsible for maintaining “order and decorum” in the chamber and grants the Speaker the authority to “set other guidelines for decorum” in the House.
Prohibited conduct includes things like recording or live streaming House procedures, speaking without being recognized by the Speaker of the House, “avoiding all personalities,” being absent without receiving leave ahead of time, explaining a vote orally on the floor, using visual aids or props and more.
Several of these rules are what the “Tennessee Three” are accused of violating.
“Justin Jones of Davidson County, along with Gloria Johnson of Knox County and Justin J. Pearson of Shelby County, did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions,” reads House Joint Resolution 65, which specifically calls for Jones’s expulsion.
Those actions “[reflect] adversely upon the integrity and dignity of the House of Representatives of the State of Tennessee, places a cloud upon the action of this Honorable Body, and is inconsistent with the duty of a member of this Body,” the resolution continues.
Johnson, Jones and Pearson’s protest violate multiple sections of the Permanent Rules, according to the resolutions.
Section 18 outlines that no member of the House may speak without recognition, and if they are recognized, they are to “rise, and respectfully address the chair and await the notice of the Speaker.”
“After recognition,” the rule states, “the member shall proceed with making remarks which strictly conform to the question under debate and avoid all personalities.”
Section 35 specifically prohibits the use of “other papers and visual aids” except under specific circumstances. Per the rule, members are prohibited from entering the House or any committees with “props or personal displays of any kind that may be used as a visual aid for the advocacy of, or in opposition to, any legislation or political message whatsoever.”
By holding signs and using the bullhorn, Republican lawmakers say the trio violated this rule.
Lawmakers also charge the three with crowding near the House Clerk’s desk, which is prohibited through Section 41.
According to the Rules, lawmakers who continue to “transgress” may be subject to censure, but expulsion is not listed among the punishments for violations of decorum. The expulsion provision is only listed in the Constitution.
What happens when a member is expelled?
According to House Democrats spokesperson Ken Jobe, when someone is expelled, they lose their seat for the session. The 113th General Assembly has not yet concluded its first year of a two-year session, meaning Johnson, Jones and Pearson’s seats would be vacant for more than a year if they are expelled Thursday.
In the meantime, Jobe said, the representative’s home county commission can appoint someone to fill the seat instead. After the session has concluded, a special election can be held. As long as the expelled member has not been convicted of a crime, they could opt to run again.
According to Julia Bruck, Director of Communications for Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Tennessee law states the successor will fill the seat for the remainder of the term if 12 or more months remain in the term.