On April 6, 2023, the Tennessee state House of Representatives invoked a 1796 statute allowing state representatives to remove, with a two-thirds majority vote, any member who "knowingly and intentionally bring[s] disorder and dishonor" to the House. The targets: Democratic Reps. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, Justin Jones of Nashville, and Justin Pearson of Memphis.
The three Representatives, dubbed the Tennessee Three in media reports, had participated in a protest in the chamber of the House against inaction on gun control after mass killings at The Covenant School in Nashville, as reported by the Washington Post. A former student fatally shot three youths and three adults before authorities killed the suspect on March 27, 2023. According to the Post:
During the [gun control] protests, Jones, Johnson and Pearson walked to the front of the chamber to join in the chants that reverberated from the gallery. There were protesters of all ages — including children "from strollers to high school," according to Johnson — padding the gallery, filling the rotunda and overflowing outside the building.
Jones, who held a sign that read "Protect kids, not guns," led the crowd on the chamber balcony, shouting "No action, no peace!" into a megaphone. Afterward, Pearson spoke through the megaphone about gun violence and chanted, "Enough is enough."
By the end of a tumultuous gathering that drew hundreds of protestors, two of the three representatives — Jones and Pearson — had been expelled.
Johnson, the only white member of the three, survived her vote, as reported by The Post:
In a historic act of partisan retaliation, the chamber voted 72-25 to oust Rep. Justin Jones (D), a 27-year-old community organizer elected in November to represent part of Nashville, and 69-26 to expel Rep. Justin Pearson (D) of Memphis. Republicans did not have enough votes to remove Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), a former teacher from Knoxville who lost a student to gun violence. [...]
After the vote that allowed Johnson to remain in the House, reporters asked why she thought she was spared. Johnson, who is White, responded: "It might have to do with the color of our skin." Jones is of Black and Filipino descent, and Pearson is Black.
Such actions are extremely rare, according to a 2019 report by the Tennessee Attorney General. There have been three instances in which members of the state House were expelled, and it has never happened in the Tennessee Senate:
The Tennessee House of Representatives has used its power to expel only three times[...] First, during the Extraordinary Session of 1866, the House expelled six members "for the contempt of the authority of this House." [...]
Second, in 1980, the House expelled Representative Robert Fisher after he had been found guilty of accepting a bribe while in office. [...]
Third, in 2016, after conducting an investigation into certain allegations against Representative Jeremy Durham, the House expelled him for "disorderly conduct."
State Rep. Jeremy Durham, according to a 2016 report by the state attorney general covered by the Tennessean, "engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with 22 women, including sexual harassment."
The 1866 expulsions were leveled against six representatives who attempted to "prevent the ratification of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people," according to the Huffington Post:
Jones, an activist and community organizer who was elected to office in 2020 and who is among the youngest members of the House, told reporters that the vote was "a very dangerous precedent for the nation." He urged the nation to hold those in the House accountable:
In a week after a mass shooting, it is so outrageous that the first reaction of this body is to expel me rather than to pass common sense gun laws which we were asking for. Our community's been grieving, Nashville is in grieving, and this is their response to grieving. [...] The nation needs to know and hold those in this chamber accountable. I will continue to stand with the people.
Pearson, the second youngest member of the House who had been elected in a January 2023 special election, said in his final statements before the vote over his expulsion, that "we are still here, and we will never quit."