Tennessee House expels Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson and Nashville Rep. Justin Jones, vote against Knoxville Rep. Gloria Johnson.

Tennessee Republicans have used their power to expel two Democratic lawmakers from the state Legislature for their role in a protest that called for more gun control in the aftermath of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. A third Democrat narrowly avoided being expelled by a one-vote margin. This expulsion action is an extraordinary act of political retaliation. It is a move that the chamber has used only a handful times since the Civil War.

Most state legislatures have the power to expel members. However, it is usually reserved as punishment for lawmakers accused of serious misconduct, not as retaliation for political opponents. Accusations of racism were quickly addressed when lawmakers ousted Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both of whom are Black, while Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, was spared the vote on her expulsion.

The three Democrats participated in protesting last week as hundreds of protesters packed the Capitol to call for the passage of gun-control measures. As demonstrators filled galleries, the three Democrats approached the front of the House chamber with a bullhorn and participated in a chant. The protest unfolded days after the shooting at the Covenant School, a private Christian school, which killed six people, including three children.

Jones vowed to continue pressing for action on guns, even if expelled. Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol on Thursday to support the Democrats, chanting outside the House chamber so loudly that the noise drowned out the proceedings. The two expelled lawmakers may not be gone for long; County commissions in their districts get to pick replacements to serve until a special election can be scheduled, and the two ousted lawmakers would be eligible to run in the special election.

Outrage over the expulsions underscored not only the ability of the Republican supermajority to silence opponents but also its increasing willingness to do so. In Washington, President Joe Biden blasted the GOP’s priorities, calling their actions shocking, undemocratic and without precedent.

The Republican lawmakers said in a statement that many of the protesters traveled from Memphis and Knoxville, areas that Pearson and Johnson represent, and stood in a line that wrapped around the Capitol to get inside. Before the expulsion vote, House members debated more than 20 bills, including a school safety proposal requiring public and private schools to submit their building safety plans to the state. The bill did not address gun control, sparking criticism from some Democratic members that lawmakers were only addressing a symptom and not the cause of school shootings.

Past expulsion votes have taken place under distinctly different circumstances. In 2019, lawmakers faced pressure to expel former Republican Rep. David Byrd after he faced accusations of sexual misconduct dating back to when he was a high school basketball coach three decades earlier. Republicans declined to take any action, pointing out that he was reelected as the allegations surfaced. Byrd retired last year.

Last year, the state Senate expelled Democrat Katrina Robinson after she was convicted of using about $3,400 in federal grant money on wedding expenses instead of her nursing school. Before that case, state lawmakers last ousted a House member in 2016 when the chamber voted 70-2 to remove Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham after an attorney general’s investigation detailed allegations of improper sexual contact with at least 22 women during his four years in office.

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