By Gennifer Harding-Gosnell
Two members of the State House of Representatives of Tennessee, Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, were expelled from their positions in the House in mid-April after they supported protesters who came to the State Capitol earlier in the week to call for gun control reforms.
A shooting at a private school in Nashville that killed three adults and three nine-year-old children on March 27 prompted at least a thousand Nashville-area students to stage a walkout and rally at the state capitol the following week. Jones, Pearson, and their colleague, Representative Gloria Johnson, joined the protest by leading chants from the lectern, disrupting a legislature meeting. Leaders in the state legislature proposed and then voted to expel Jones and Pearson. The Republican Party controls Tennessee’s State House of Representatives 75-23 and needed 66 votes for expulsion. The House voted 72-25 along party lines to remove Jones and 69-26 to remove Pearson. Johnson was spared when the vote to expel her came to 65-30. Johnson stated she believes she survived the expulsion because she is a white woman and the other two legislators were young Black men.
The expulsion manifested as a result of what’s known as a supermajority in the Tennessee State House of Representatives. A supermajority is where one political party has more than two-thirds of the seats in a government body. Two-thirds is most often what is required to pass legislation, so any political party that has that majority is more likely to pass any legislation they want if everyone votes along party lines. Tennessee has only expelled members from its State House twice since the Civil War, both for committing crimes. The President of the U.S. said in a statement that the “expulsion of lawmakers who engaged in peaceful protest is shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.”
Voters around the country have expressed concerns that similar expulsions can happen in their states to their own government representatives. Can it happen here in Ohio? The short answer is ‘yes’.
The Republican Party currently holds a supermajority in both the Ohio State House and the Senate. There are 67 Republicans and 32 Democrats in the House, and 26 Republicans and 7 Democrats in the Senate. Like Tennessee, Ohio’s state government also requires a two-thirds vote to expel members. The Ohio state government has expelled members before, but very rarely. House Speaker Larry Householder was expelled in 2021, about a year after he was arrested and charged in the FirstEnergy corruption scandal. The last time the Ohio House expelled a sitting lawmaker before that was in 1857 when Representative John Slough from Cincinnati was removed for punching a fellow legislator.
“[Supermajority] leadership in other states will look at what’s going on in Tennessee and ask, ‘Is it worth it?’,” says Professor Jonathan Entin from the School of Law at Case Western University. “The fact that this Tennessee situation has wound up looking totally symbolic and ineffectual, I think, is likely to cause at least some Republicans in other states to look at this and think long and hard about whether they want to go down this path.” Entin suggests that if such an expulsion were to happen in the state of Ohio, members of the public will want to get in touch with fellow legislators in the expelled member’s party and state house, as they are the ones responsible for selecting someone to finish the term. “It’s just that the amount of influence the public will have on the majority is probably limited,” says Entin.
The gun control debate in general remains divisive and shows a disconnect between politicians and their constituents. For example, the protesters in Nashville, mostly students, parents, and teachers—the most affected by school shootings—are asking for a ban on military-grade weapons. Polling regularly shows the number of Americans who support an assault weapons ban is around 65 to 75 percent. Laws passed this week by the Tennessee legislature will require public schools to install classroom door locks, add more incident-training drills, and require all external doors on the schools to be locked during the day, but do not address the protestors’ concerns about access to assault weapons.