When the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two members for their political speech in April, it was unprecedented. The chamber’s actions appear to have been racially motivated, as only the Black elected officials were thrown out while a third, white official who engaged in the same conduct was spared.
Days earlier, house leadership had blocked Democratic Reps. Justin Jones, Justin Pearson, and Gloria Johnson from speaking out in favor of gun reform. In response, they led chants about the issue on the house floor. The Republican supermajority promptly expelled Jones and Pearson, supposedly for breaching the rules of decorum.
Within a week, their respective local governments reinstated the legislators pending special elections. But this short-term outcome should not distract from the legislature’s undemocratic actions.
The Republican majority abused its power to expel two democratically elected lawmakers because of who they were and what they said, stripping representation from nearly 150,000 Tennesseans and effectively nullifying the votes the public had cast a few months earlier. The message was clear: the raw will of the current majority will be wielded against dissenters.
Legislatures have the power to expel members, but the Supreme Court has ruled that legislative power must be balanced against the First Amendment and other fundamental rights. Indeed, the expulsions prompted elected officials in the U.S. Senate to ask the Justice Department to investigate whether the Tennessee house’s actions violated such limits.
The events in Tennessee fit into a broader trend of partisan majorities removing or otherwise disempowering elected officials for their political views. In Montana, a Republican supermajority in the house voted to remove Rep. Zooey Zephyr (D) from the floor and committee meetings for the last week of the session after Zephyr, the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker, spoke against a ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) removed Andrew Warren, an elected county prosecutor, from office last year because he promised not to enforce the state’s newly enacted anti-abortion law. A federal judge condemned DeSantis for violating the prosecutor’s First Amendment right to free speech, explaining that a “governor cannot properly suspend a state attorney based on policy differences.” DeSantis now threatens to remove Monique Worrell, another elected prosecutor, over disagreements with her charging decisions.
In Wisconsin, legislators pledged to consider impeaching Janet Protasiewicz, a newly elected state supreme court justice, before she ever ruled on a case. They pointed to no wrongdoing by the justice, only the possibility that she would rule based on her “personal beliefs,” a reference to her campaign comments supporting abortion rights and denouncing gerrymandering.
Even in an era of American democratic backsliding, the silencing and removal of legitimately elected officials over policy disagreements or for other invidious purposes is a startling development. By turning a measure meant to punish criminality or grossly unethical conduct into a political weapon, the Tennessee legislature undertook an unprecedented, likely discriminatory, and probably unconstitutional removal of two representatives.