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What to know about the "Tennessee Three": Why were two of the Democratic lawmakers expelled, and what happens now?

Tennessee lawmaker reinstated after expulsion
Tennessee lawmaker Justin Jones reinstated after expulsion 04:49

Controversy has surrounded the vote by Tennessee lawmakers to expel two members from the state legislature after they and a third member — all Democrats — took part in a protest against gun violence from the floor of the chamber. 

The votes, held on Thursday, April 6, resulted in Justin Jones and Justin Pearson being expelled from the Tennessee State House of Representatives, while Gloria Johnson kept her seat by one vote. 

Vice President Kamala Harris headed to Nashville to meet with them on Friday, and President Biden spoke with the three via conference call and invited them to visit the White House.

On Monday, April 10, the Nashville Metro Council voted unanimously to reinstate Jones, and two days later the Shelby County Commission voted unanimously to reinstate Pearson.

Here's what to know about the "Tennessee Three," the events that led up to Thursday's vote, and what happens next. 

What led to the expulsion of two Tennessee lawmakers? 

On March 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at Tennessee's state capitol in Nashville, calling for tighter gun control laws after three 9-year-olds and three adults were killed in a shooting at The Covenant School, a private grade school in the city. It was the first day that the state's legislature had taken up bills since the shooting

Protesters lined the hallways before entering the galleries of the House and Senate chambers, chanting and shouting. 

On the House floor, the three representatives brought proceedings to a halt. Jones and Pearson led chants through a bullhorn as legislators instituted a recess. Video filmed by a Republican on the house floor during the event — also a violation of the legislature's rules, Democrats contended on Thursday — showed the three speaking on the floor as demonstrators could be heard in the background. 

Tennessee state representatives exit House Chamber in Nashville
Rep. Justin Pearson, Rep. Justin Jones, Rep. Gloria Johnson hold their hands up as they exit the House Chamber doors at the Tennessee State Capitol Building, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 3, 2023.  NICOLE HESTER/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters

Republicans, who hold a large majority of seats, immediately pledged a rapid response. Johnson and Jones were stripped of committee assignments. (Pearson was newly elected and had yet to receive any committee assignments.) Motions to expel the three from the legislature were introduced by three different Tennessee Republicans on April 3, accusing the trio of "disorderly behavior." 

Who is Justin Jones? 

Justin Jones, 27, was the first of the "Tennessee Three" to be expelled from the House, by a vote of 72-25. 

He'd been one of the youngest members of the legislature and represented the state's 52nd district, which has about 70,000 residents and is part of Davidson County, the Nashville metro area. His photo and bio have been removed from the Tennessee General Assembly's website, but on his campaign site, Jones describes himself as a Nashville activist and community organizer. 

Jones gave an impassioned speech on the House floor before the vote.

"This is not about expelling us as individuals. This is your attempt to expel the voices of the people from the people's house. It will not be successful," Jones said before the vote to expel him. "Your overreaction, your flexing of false power has awakened a generation of people who will let you know that your time is up."

State Rep. Justin Jones speaks at the Tennessee House of Representatives ahead of votes on whether to expel him and two other Democratic members for their roles in a gun control demonstration at the statehouse last week, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 6,
State Rep. Justin Jones speaks at the Tennessee House of Representatives ahead of votes on whether to expel him and two other Democratic members for their roles in a gun control demonstration at the statehouse last week, in Nashville, Tennessee, April 6, 2023. Reuters/Cheney Orr

Who is Justin Pearson? 

Justin Pearson, 28, was the second member of the group to be expelled from the House and another of its youngest members. He was elected in a January 2023 special election after the incumbent, Barbara Cooper, had died. He represented the state's 86th district, which has about 64,000 residents and is part of Shelby County, where Memphis is located.

Pearson's information and photo is no longer available on the Tennessee General Assembly's website. On his campaign site, he describes himself as a community leader and advocate. 

Pearson was expelled from the legislature in a 69-26 vote. 

In an emotional statement before his vote, Pearson referenced Rev. Martin Luther King's beliefs in putting "conscience above rule."  

"We have heard from thousands of people asking us to do something about gun violence," Pearson said. "What it is in the best interest of our people is ending gun violence."

Tennessee Lawmaker Expulsion
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, listens to remarks on the floor of the House chamber in Nashville on Thursday before a vote to expel him along with two other representatives over a gun control protest.   George Walker IV / AP

Who is Gloria Johnson? 

Gloria Johnson was the only member of the "Tennessee Three" to not be expelled from the legislature on Thursday, retaining her seat by a single vote. She has been stripped of her committee assignments and it's unclear if those will be restored. 

Johnson, 60, is a retired teacher who spoke of her experience surviving a school shooting before her vote. She represents the state's 90th district, part of Knox County, and is currently serving her fourth term in the legislature. 

Before the votes, she defended her colleagues Pearson and Jones, saying the legislature has to "welcome this younger generation, who might do it a little bit differently, but they are fighting for their constituency." 

After the votes were concluded, she suggested that she had survived the process because she is White and Jones and Pearson are Black. 

 "I think it's pretty clear: I'm a 60-year-old White woman. And they are two young Black men." Johnson told CNN, calling them "amazing young men... who are working so hard for people in their communities."

Two Tennessee lawmakers expelled from state House over mass shooting protest 03:32

Why is the expulsion so unusual? 

The forced expulsion of lawmakers from any state legislative body in the United States is a rare event.

In Tennessee, just eight lawmakers have been expelled from the house in the past. Six of those were Confederates who were expelled in the 19th century for refusing to affirm the citizenship of formerly enslaved Black people. In the 20th century, a legislator was expelled after being convicted of bribery, and in 2016, a member was expelled for sexual misconduct.

Before his vote, Jones listed other lawmakers who have acted unprofessionally or been investigated for misconduct but not been expelled from the legislature, calling the votes an "extreme measure" that is an "attempt to silence and undo the will of over 200,000 Tennesseans" represented by the trio. 

How have people reacted to the expulsion? 

Democrats nationwide were quick to condemn the expulsions. President Joe Biden issued a statement Thursday night calling it "shocking" and "undemocratic."

"Today's expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent," Mr. Biden said. "Rather than debating the merits of the issue, these Republican lawmakers have chosen to punish, silence, and expel duly elected representatives of the people of Tennessee."

On Friday, the White House said Mr. Biden said he spoke with the three to "thank them for their leadership in seeking to ban assault weapons and standing up for our democratic values." It added that he has invited them to visit the White House in the near future.

Former President Barack Obama tweeted, "No elected official should lose their job simply for raising their voice – especially when they're doing it on behalf of our children," adding, "Silencing those who disagree with us is a sign of weakness, not strength, and it won't lead to progress." 

In a statement shared on social media, Tennessee House Republicans said it was a "sad day" for the state — but they defended the vote as "the only path forward" in response to the trio's "disrespectful" actions.

"Unprecedented events yield unprecedented consequences," the group said. "Unfortunately, we were obligated to levy unprecedented consequences on those members today. Our focus continues to be on the six innocent lives that were brutally taken last week at the Covenant School, not those who have chosen to make this tragedy about themselves." 

What happens next? Will they get their seats back?

The two vacant seats will be filled, and both Jones and Pearson could soon return to the legislature. According to the Tennessee state Constitution, because there are less than 12 months before the next election, the successor is to be elected by the legislative body of the replaced legislator's county of residence.

The Metro Council of Nashville called a special meeting for Monday, April 10, to fill Jones' seat and unanimously voted to reinstate him. Prior to the vote, Nashville mayor John Cooper said he was "proud" that the council was meeting and would "send (Jones) right back to continue serving his constituents." 

Shelby County Commissioner Mickell Lowery also called a special meeting over Pearson's expulsion. The commissioners voted unanimously to reappoint Pearson to his seat.

Tennessee House Republicans said on social media that if Jones and Pearson return to the House, they hope that the duo will "act as the thousands who have come before them — with respect for our institution, their fellow colleagues and the seat they hold." 

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