Justin Jones, a democratically elected lawmaker from Tennessee who was expelled from the state legislature last week, has been reappointed to fill his vacant seat on an interim basis. The Metro Nashville Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones, who was the first state representative ever to be ejected from the legislature for violating the chamber’s rules on decorum without facing an investigation or accusations of serious misconduct.
Jones, who is Black, returned to the floor of the state House of Representatives on Monday and said, “I want to welcome the people back to the people’s house. I want to welcome democracy back to the people’s house.” His April 6 ejection was quickly followed by that of Justin Pearson, a fellow Democrat who represented parts of Memphis. A third Democrat, Gloria Johnson, narrowly escaped expulsion by a single vote. Johnson is white, leading to accusations of racial and partisan bias in the heavily Republican state legislature.
Jones, Pearson, and Johnson were all accused of breaching decorum after they led a March 30 protest on the floor of the state House of Representatives following a deadly mass shooting at The Covenant School, a private institution that offers education from preschool through sixth grade. The protest called for greater gun control in the wake of the shooting, and Jones and Pearson used a bullhorn to be heard during the demonstration.
The decision to expel the two Black lawmakers has drawn national attention to the Tennessee legislature, with critics calling the expulsions anti-democratic. “The Council has followed the law,” the Tennessee Democratic Party wrote on social media, applauding Monday’s vote. “It’s time for the Republican Speaker to do the same and swear him back into the State House.”
In nominating Jones to return to the seat he was expelled from on Monday, Nashville Council Member Delishia Porterfield denounced the state legislature for launching “an egregious assault on our democracy”. “With this vote, we will send a strong message to our state government and across the country that we will not tolerate threats to our democracy,” Porterfield said.
Together, Jones and Pearson represented nearly 140,000 voters as elected legislators for districts 52 and 86, respectively. Pearson celebrated his colleague’s reinstatement on Monday with a speech quoting Biblical verse. “Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. It will happen,” Pearson told a crowd of supporters. “You might try and silence it. You might try and expel it. But the people’s power will not be stopped. The people’s power will not be stopped. Because this is what democracy looks like.”
Pearson too is hoping to return to the legislature, as the Shelby County Board of Commissioners meets this Wednesday to consider his reinstatement. Both he and Jones have indicated they will run in the upcoming special elections to permanently fill the seats left open by their expulsions. County legislative bodies in Tennessee are empowered to appoint interim representatives should seats fall vacant.
Protesters gathered on Monday before the vote to show their support for Jones, waving signs and chanting “Whose house? Our house!” and “No Justin, no peace”, a play on the civil rights slogan, “No justice, no peace”. The administration of US President Joe Biden, a Democrat, had also spoken out against Jones’s and Pearson’s expulsions. Vice President Kamala Harris flew to Tennessee to meet with the lawmakers on Friday, and Biden called the “Tennessee Three” to invite them to the White House later that day.
Prior to the April 6 vote to expel Pearson and Jones, the Tennessee legislature had only exercised its power to eject members three times. The first time came in 1866, after the Civil War, when legislators attempted to block a constitutional amendment that would grant citizenship to all people born in the US, regardless of race — affording them equal protection under the law. The second time came in 1980 when a state representative accepted a bribe. And the third time came in 2016 when a legislator was accused of sexual harassment.
For protesting on the House floor, Jones and Pearson were accused of disrupting proceedings and bringing “disorder and dishonour” to the chamber. They were expelled along party lines, with votes of 72 to 25 and 69 to 26, respectively.