As Republicans in the Tennessee House of Representatives prepared to vote Thursday to expel two Black Democratic lawmakers for halting proceedings last week to protest for gun-control reform in the aftermath of a Nashville mass shooting, Democratic lawmakers listed things their colleagues had done over the years that were not punished with expulsion.
Republican legislative leaders accused state Reps. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson — dubbed the “Tennessee Three” — of “disorderly behavior” after leading a crowd of protesters in briefly disrupting the legislative session. Jones and Pearson were ousted, while Johnson narrowly was allowed to keep her seat.
Expelling a member from the state House is a rarity in Tennessee history, and it has only previously happened three times. In 1866, six lawmakers were expelled for blocking the ratification of the 14th Amendment. In 1980, a House member was expelled for seeking a bribe in exchange for scuttling a piece of legislation. And then in 2016, a representative was expelled amid state and federal investigations for sexual misconduct after a state attorney general report found that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with at least 22 women.
In a floor speech, Jones warned that the legislature was “holding up a mirror to a state that is going back to some dark, dark roots.”
“A state in which the Ku Klux Klan was founded is now attempting another power grab by silencing the two youngest Black representatives and one of the only Democratic women in this body,” he said. “That’s what this is about.”
Several Democrats pointed to things Republicans did or were accused of doing that did not result in expulsion. Here are a few examples:
In 2018, state Rep. David Byrd (R) faced accusations from three women who said he sexually assaulted them while they were minors on a basketball team that he coached. Byrd, who served in the state House until January, publicly denied the accusations and questioned the motives of the women. A recording of his conversation with one accuser surfaced, in which Byrd said: “I wish I had a do-over, because I promise you I would have corrected that and that would’ve never happened,” and that he thinks about an unspecified incident “all the time.”
In 2019, Republican leadership killed a resolution to expel him from the chamber brought by Johnson, the member of the Tennessee Three who was not ousted. Johnson reintroduced the resolution but it failed in committee after Republicans canceled its hearing.
“You have to balance the will of the voters and overturning the will of the voters,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) told a local news station in 2019 of the situation.
In May 2019, the House Republican Caucus held a 45-24 no-confidence vote on then-Tennessee House Speaker Glen Casada (R) after text messages emerged that showed the chamber’s top leader encouraged or approved of his chief of staff making disparaging and sexual comments about women, including interns and a lobbyist.
Casada stepped down as speaker but remained a member of the legislature and was not expelled.
In January 2021, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted a search of Casada’s home in connection with a public corruption investigation.
In August 2022, federal prosecutors charged Casada with money laundering, wire fraud, bribery and kickbacks concerning federal funds. Prosecutors allege Casada and two others created a political consulting firm, Phoenix Solutions, that was then approved by the House Speaker’s Office as a state vendor. Prosecutors allege the trio created false identities to funnel $52,000 through a state mailer program to their firm. Casada denies the charges. Despite the federal charges, Casada served the remainder of his term, which ended in January, and was not expelled from the legislature.
Last month, state Rep. Paul Sherrell (R) asked if the state would consider adding “hanging by a tree” to its list of execution methods. “I think it’s a very good idea, and I was just wondering about … could I put an amendment on that it would include hanging by a tree, also?” Sherrell asked during a committee hearing.
The comments sparked backlash in a state with a history of racist lynchings of Black people. An Equal Justice Initiative report found that at least 236 lynchings took place in Tennessee between 1877 and 1950. Sherrell apologized for his comments and clarified that he believed “that for the cruelest and most heinous crimes, a just society requires the death penalty in kind.” Black lawmakers rebuked the remarks as racist and hurtful to the state’s Black community. Sherrell has not been reprimanded or censured for his remarks.
In 2021, state Rep. Justin Lafferty (R) defended the Three-Fifths Compromise on the floor of the state House as “a bitter, bitter pill” that was necessary to end slavery. The comments were immediately condemned as ahistoric by lawmakers and historians for its misrepresentation of Southern states’ stance on slavery during the Constitutional Convention. How to count the nation’s population of enslaved people in the census was a matter of significant debate at the convention for its implications over how many representatives states were afforded in Congress.
Lafferty’s comments were made during a floor debate over an education law that withholds funds to school systems that include concepts like critical race theory and systemic racism in their curriculums.
In 2019, the state House’s Republican caucus was riven by a scandal surrounding an anonymous Twitter account that critiqued lawmakers and their staff and aired gossip about the chamber. State Rep. Rick Tillis (R) was found to have operated the account after an investigation. Tillis, who served as the House whip, wrote multiple tweets criticizing the staff of the then-House speaker’s staff and aired his thoughts on staff promotions before the news was made public. At some point before his identity as the account’s owner was confirmed, and as rumors swirled that Tillis was responsible, a chair in his office was soaked with urine.
Other GOP lawmakers said they suspected that other members were involved in the account at the time but had no evidence. Tillis later stepped down from his position as whip and narrowly lost his primary for reelection in 2020.