Two Democratic lawmakers have been expelled from Tennessee’s GOP-dominated House, an extraordinary act of political retaliation for their role in a gun control demonstration after the killings at a Nashville elementary school last week.
Thousands of protesters have flocked to the Tennessee state capitol to support three Democratic members who were facing removal. Only two of the three were ultimately forced out.
Joe Biden called the move “shocking, undemocratic and without precedent” in a statement. “Three kids and three officials gunned down in yet another mass shooting. And what are GOP officials focused on? Punishing lawmakers who joined thousands of peaceful protesters calling for action.”
Former president Barack Obama joined in the condemnation, tweeting: “This nation was built on peaceful protest. No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they’re doing it on behalf of our children.”
The banishment of representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson was a move the chamber has used only a handful times since the civil war.
Most state legislatures possess the power to expel members, but it is generally reserved as a punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not used as a weapon against political opponents.
The two men are Black, and Jones on Friday called the expulsion “openly racist”.
After he was the first to be expelled, Jones, 27, went outside the chamber and stood in front of supporters and shouted “no action, no peace” to cheers. Jones then told reporters he did not know what was next and was going to consult his legal team as he believed the expulsion was unconstitutional.
Earlier on Thursday the three Democrats had held hands as they walked on to the house floor. During the pledge of allegiance, Pearson raised his fist to the crowd.
The expulsions have once again thrust Tennessee into the national spotlight, underscoring not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents but also its increasing willingness to do so. The move sends a chilling message just as lawmakers grapple with how to respond to the devastating shooting at the Covenant school.
Many protesters had traveled to the Tennessee state capitol from Memphis and Knoxville, areas Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the building. Johnson urged those in the gallery to remain calm and not shout at lawmakers, to avoid getting removed.
Protesters outside the chamber held up signs that said “School zones shouldn’t be war zones”; “Muskets didn’t fire 950 rounds per minute”, with a photo of George Washington; and “You can silence a gun … but not the voice of the people”.
As the House began proceedings, a Democrat, Vincent Dixie, urged that colleagues “not get distracted”. He mentioned the funeral of Mike Hill, the custodian killed at the Covenant school, which took place earlier in the week.
“I want us to keep in mind the sacrifice that he made to keep those kids safe,” Dixie said. “Each of us has power to make change.”
Before the expulsion votes, House membersdebated more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit building safety plans to the state.
The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticisms from some Democrats that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.
Expulsions in the Tennessee general assembly are rare.
In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel the former Republican representative David Byrd, after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades before.
Republicans declined to take action, pointing out that he was re-elected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.
In 2022, the state senate expelled a Democrat, Katrina Robinson, after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school.
Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a house member in 2016, voting 70-2 to remove the Republican Jeremy Durham after an investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women in four years in office.
Following the votes, the county commissions in their districts will get to pick replacements to serve until special elections could be held. The Democratic members expelled would remain eligible to run in those contests.