KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton set the record straight, explaining why three state representatives faced expulsion hearings on Thursday.
Two representatives of the “Tennessee Three,” Reps Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled from the house on Thursday, and a third narrowly held her seat by one vote. The representatives faced expulsion one week after they occupied the well of the House without permission. Rep. Gloria Johnson said before the hearing that she did not regret what she did, and following the hearing, she said she would not apologize for going to the well.
Sexton spoke with NewsNation Friday evening, followed by an interview with WATE. According to Sexton, the three chose themselves when they lead a protest on the House floor, which has not happened before in Tennessee.
“They made the choice to lead a protest from the House floor, which has never happened in the history of the state of Tennessee. They explained disruptive behavior to the extent to where we had to shut down the session where we’re having bills to have passed legislation to such disregard for 45 minutes and they led the protest to the people in the balcony to disrupt the proceedings of the House while we were in session,” Sexton said. “I thought it rised to the level of expulsion and all three members we didn’t pick the members they chose themselves, who were going to come up there. And so we put them all three up for a vote for expulsion.”
Sexton also carefully explained that the House set a precedent for the punishment of holding a protest on the house floor. In his words, Sexton said it does not matter to him if someone is a Republican, Democrat, Independent, or Green Party member, “At the end of the day, if you do that on our House floor in Tennessee, you should be expelled.”
According to Sexton, the House was not saying that protest was wrong outside the capital, outside the chamber, or at all. Rather, he said that members of the body in the chamber are bound to follow House rules, and under those rules and the state constitution, members cannot protest on the house floor.
Sexton also said that he thought expulsion was the correct level of punishment for the “Tennessee Three.”
“The level that I thought that they should get to is expulsion. Censorship is too light. It’s a piece of paper. It means absolutely nothing. They have been disruptive in committees on the House floor for the whole time this year.” Sexton said.
Some have raised the question why the the actions of Jones, Pearson, and Johnson were not reviewed by the Ethics Council like the actions of previously expelled members have been. Sexton told WATE that it’s because it was not a violation of ethics policy.
“The Council said that what they did on the House floor was not a violation of the ethics policy. It was a violation of the House rules sending their charges of what they did and the protest that they did on the House floor was not viable to go to the ethics complaint. It was a breach of House rules, which means we had to deal with it on the House floor, either through censure or through expulsion, so we followed the rules. We followed the process and we did what we were advised to do by Ethics Council,” said Sexton.
Additionally, Sexton justified the choice of the House to expel the the representatives, explaining that no one wanted to be there for an expulsion, but a precedent was set.
“I don’t think there was a soul who wanted to be there voting on expulsion. That’s not what we wanted to do. We wanted to talk about Tennessee families, Tennessee children, how to protect kids in public and private school, but these three individuals forced us to have to take action. We took action on expulsion,” Sexton said. “We followed the Constitution, we followed the process. We followed the procedure. Unfortunately, it did set a precedent and we were very aware that since this has never happened in Tennessee history, then we were setting a precedent for future assemblies on when people acted this way when they lead a protest on the House floor then we were well aware of what we were setting as far as precedent for the future and that’s why we set it at expulsion.”