The Tennessee House of Representatives has passed a bill prohibiting local governments from reappointing lawmakers who were expelled for “disorderly behavior,” a clear jab at two Democratic representatives in particular.
House Bill 2716 passed the Republican-dominated chamber Monday by a vote of 69-22. The measure, which now moves to the Republican-controlled Senate, states that if a local legislature needs to elect a successor for a vacant seat in the state General Assembly, “and the vacancy was created due to the expulsion of a member for disorderly behavior, then the local legislative body shall not elect the expelled legislator to be the successor to fill the vacant seat.”
The bill is a blatant attempt by Republicans to kick out any Democrats they don’t like—and make sure they don’t find a way back into the state legislature. After all, Tennessee Republicans have tried to kick out Democratic lawmakers once before.
If the bill becomes law, it is guaranteed to be held up in the courts. The Tennessee constitution and current state law both give local governing bodies full power to appoint anyone they choose to fill vacant seats, so long as that person is legally qualified to hold office.
The General Assembly’s legal staff warned lawmakers just last week that the bill is not backed by either constitutional language or historical precedent. But Republicans forged ahead anyway.
The bill is an obvious response to the reappointment of Democratic Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson last year. The two men are part of the Tennessee Three, three Democratic lawmakers who gained national attention last March when they joined thousands of pro–gun control protesters in the state Capitol in the wake of a school shooting in Nashville.
Republicans accused Jones, Pearson, and Gloria Johnson of violating House decorum rules and voted to expel the two men, both of whom are Black. The GOP fell one vote short of expelling Johnson, who is white.
“It’s real interesting when my colleagues on the other side talk about, ‘We need less government, we need less government overreach in our lives,’” Pearson told The Tennessean about Monday’s measure. “This exact bill, this very legislation, overreaches the Constitution of Tennessee.”
Since their return to the state Capitol, tensions between Republicans and Jones and Pearson have remained high. The two lawmakers have made gun control a key issue, despite Republican rejection. On Thursday, Jones called House Speaker Cameron Sexton “drunk with power” after the Republican posted state troopers outside a press conference, barring entry.
Things started to boil over Monday night when the House debated a separate bill about immigration. Sexton ruled Jones out of order and refused to recognize him again to speak on the measure. Pearson then said he was “tired of racist” and retaliatory measures, prompting Sexton to threaten to call him out of order, too.