Tennessee House passes bill barring local councils from returning expelled lawmakers

Published 4:47 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

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By Sam Stockard

Tennessee Lookout

Republicans rejected several amendments by Democrats Monday night, including two each by Rep. Jason Powell and Pearson, who was reprimanded for saying he was weary of the “racist” retaliation against him and Jones.

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Pearson agreed the House had the right to expel members but not to “overreach” the Constitution, which he noted has been unchanged on the subject since the state was founded.

Powell argued that Metro Nashville and Shelby County voters will “stand up and fight for justice,” and he pointed out the bill would be a major “departure” from the precedent and the right of due process.

“This bill is unconstitutional, and my community is sick and tired of being pushed around by people who don’t respect the constitution,” Powell said.

The House State Government Committee approved the bill last week even though its legal counsel, Matt Munday, advised the panel it would be unconstitutional. He noted a constitutional amendment likely would be needed to change the provision that allows local governments to fill vacant seats. Guidelines for House members don’t include expulsion as a disqualifier, and members can’t be expelled twice for the same offense.

Another measure in the Legislature would set up a constitutional amendment to do the same thing but would have to go through two sessions of the General Assembly and then a public vote in the next gubernatorial election.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton declined recently to say where he stands on passing measures found unconstitutional.

“There’s always people who question the constitutionality of stuff. We’ll see,” he said. Sexton abstained on the bill Monday.

Sexton also refused to call on Jones during the debate. The House parliamentarian announced that lawmakers aren’t guaranteed the opportunity to speak.

Despite constitutional questions, House Republicans approved a measure Monday that would stop expelled lawmakers from being reappointed to office.

Lawmakers voted 69-22 in favor of House Bill 2716, which would prohibit local legislative bodies from returning former members to office after expulsion.

“Our framers did not intend that someone expelled from this House would be considered replacing themselves,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville. He argued the bill is constitutional.

Garrett led the 2023 House hearing in which Republican lawmakers expelled Reps. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, and Justin Jones, D-Nashville, for leading a gun violence protest on the floor.

Less than a week later, the Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission voted to return Jones and Pearson to the Legislature, and they won special elections over the summer. No legal challenges were made against their reappointment.