A sign on the steps of the State Capitol building

By Austin Newell

NASHVILLE, TN — Tennessee lawmakers made a historic and polarizing decision last Thursday, expelling two state representatives from office.

The move comes from Republican House members after Rep. Gloria Johnson, Rep. Justin Jones, and Rep. Justin Pearson stood in the well of the chamber and joined the protests of those in the gallery on Friday for gun reform following the Covenant school shooting last month. 

The vote to expel was postponed to Thursday, where more protestors reconvened at the capitol grounds at 7:00 am. This time though, they were not just protesting gun violence but the vote to expel the three representatives as well, who have come to be known as ‘The Tennessee Three.’

The crowd at the capitol building outside stretched from the doors of the building to the edge of the wall overlooking the Legislative Plaza. The plaza itself was about 1/4 full, with most of the crowd concentrated near its front steps. More protestors were inside the building itself, in the rotunda and in the gallery.

Chants including “We stand with the Tennessee Three” and “We will not be silenced, stop gun violence” could be heard by those on and around the capitol grounds. 

Protestors rally outside the State Capitol

“I would’ve been here regardless,” said protestor Meghan Ferris, 29. “But the expulsion added urgency, and instead of it just being about wanting something to be passed, [it’s] more about the fabric of democracy.”

Republican lawmakers who ascended the steps inside the building to the house chamber were booed by protestors below the stairs. Over two dozen Sheriffs were present inside the building. 

Indeed, you didn’t have to be at the capitol in person to hear the voices of protest. Even on the chamber’s live feed their chants could be heard in the background, a constant reminder of just how controversial an expulsion of this kind would be. 

Regardless of controversy, the house voted to expel two members of the ‘Tennessee Three’, Rep. Jones and Rep. Pearson. The vote was expected by many, as Republicans control a supermajority in the chamber.

What was unexpected, however, was Rep. Gloria’s escape from the expulsion, narrowly missing the two-thirds required threshold required to expel a member from office. The measure failed by only one vote. 

A state representative is booed by protestors inside the capitol building as he ascends the steps to the House of Representatives.

Besides the two representatives expelled today, only two other individuals have ever been expelled from state office since the 1800s, both for crimes. As the Tennessee House is able to determine its own rules, the expulsion could be argued to be legal. However, those on the opposition see the move as an incredibly harsh punishment for what amounts to a break in house decorum, and believe that it sets a disturbing precedent for a punishment that was historically only reserved for serious offenses. President Joe Biden called the decision “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”

State Senator Jeff Yarbo said the move to expel the three house members was a “disproportionate, frankly dangerous overreaction” and called it a “dark day for democracy in Tennessee.”

As of Wednesday, both the Metropolitan City Councils of Nashville and Memphis have reappointed Pearson and Jones, a win for Tennessee Democrats, although the scars left behind by the expulsion vote are not likely to heal overnight. As it stands now, the future of Tennessee politics has been irrevocably changed.