After being sworn back into the Tennessee House of Representatives, a lawmaker who was expelled just days ago over a gun control demonstration on the chamber floor said he’ll continue to call for gun reform.
“The first thing I do when I walk into this building as a representative is to continue that call for commonsense gun legislation,” Democrat Justin Jones said as he stood on the steps of the Capitol after his reinstatement Monday.
Jones and another Black Democrat, Justin J. Pearson, were forced out of the Republican-controlled legislature last week, after a protest on the chamber floor spurred by the mass shooting last month at a Nashville Christian school that left six people dead.
A third Democrat who had joined them in protest, Rep. Gloria Johnson, avoided expulsion. She is White.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted 36-0 Monday to reappoint Jones to the House of Representatives, making him once again the representative of House District 52 – but this time in the interim. State law allows local legislative bodies to appoint interim House members to fill the seats of expelled lawmakers until an election is held.
“Today we are sending a resounding message that democracy will not be killed in the comfort of silence,” Jones said to a cheering crowd Monday after marching back to the Capitol.
Now technically a new member, Jones said he can file 15 bills. He’ll be working on gun reform legislation as soon as he returns Tuesday, he told CNN on Monday evening. Each of those bills would have to do with gun reform, he said, because “that’s what these young people are begging us to do.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, announced Tuesday he would ask the General Assembly to strengthen the state’s gun laws this session, with legislation instituting an “order of protection law,” which would allow officials to strip access to weapons from “individuals who are a threat to themselves or our society.”
Regarding Jones’ reinstatement, the Tennessee House Republicans released a statement on Monday, saying, “Tennessee’s constitution provides a pathway back from expulsion. Should any expelled member be reappointed, we will welcome them. Like everyone else, they are expected to follow the rules of the House as well as state law.”
Jones’ return “just felt right,” Johnson told “CNN This Morning” Tuesday, underscoring the need for “young, passionate voices” like Jones’ and Pearson’s who are willing to fight for their constituents.
“It was so good to have him back in the body,” she said, “overwhelmingly supported by not only his district but every district in Davidson County.”
Meanwhile, Pearson’s still vacant District 86 seat is set to be addressed Wednesday during a Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting in Memphis, announced Commission Chairman Mickell Lowery, who said Pearson’s expulsion was “conducted in a hasty manner without consideration of other corrective action methods.”
“To anyone who has doubted the South, anyone who’s doubted the power of Tennesseans to advocate for an end to gun violence, anybody who’s doubted the movement to end assault weapons – anybody who’s doubted the movement, here’s your answer: The movement still lives,” said Pearson as he stood on the steps of the Capitol alongside Jones on Monday.
Pearson told CNN’s John Berman that while Monday brought celebration of Jones’ reinstatement, it was also another tragic day marked by a mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky – less than a month after the school shooting in Tennessee that prompted the lawmakers’ protest.
The shooting in Louisville points to a “sobering reality that we are in that we are not doing enough to prevent gun violence,” Pearson added.
“It’s also a painful moment of recognition that our legislators and people like (Speaker of the House) Cameron Sexton and the Republican party in Tennessee and across the South in this country are not doing nearly enough to prevent guns from getting in the hands of people and doing all of the holistic work of gun prevention that is necessary in places across our communities,” Pearson told CNN.
What happens next?
Since there are more than 12 months until the next general election in November 2024, a special election will be held to fill the seats, according to the Tennessee Constitution.
No date has been set for a special election, but state law says the governor should schedule them within 55 to 60 days.
It appears both Jones and Pearson qualify to run for their seats again in the special election. In the meantime, “the legislative body of the replaced legislator’s county of residence at the time of his or her election may elect an interim successor,” the state Constitution says.
Sexton, the Speaker of the House, indicated earlier Monday that he would not stand in the way of the appointments if the local governing bodies choose to send Jones and Pearson back to the chamber.
“The two governing bodies will make the decision as to who they want to appoint to these seats,” a spokesperson for the speaker’s office told CNN on Monday. “Those two individuals will be seated as representatives as the constitution requires.”
On Monday, Jones called for Sexton’s resignation.
“He is an enemy of democracy, and he doesn’t deserve to be in that office of a speaker of the House any longer,” Jones told CNN.
Johnson agreed, accusing Sexton of limiting debate on the House floor until last week, when the nation’s eyes turned to watch the proceedings against Jones, Johnson and Pearson.
“Before the hearings, we had more healthy debate on bills than I think we’ve ever had in three or four years on the House floor,” she told CNN on Tuesday, “because people were watching.”
CNN has reached out to Sexton for comment.
In expelling Jones and Pearson last week, Republicans held a party-line vote to oust them, accusing them of “knowingly and intentionally” bringing “disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives” without being recognized to speak, CNN affiliate WSMV reported.
While the state Constitution says members can be expelled for disorderly behavior with a two-thirds majority vote, they cannot be expelled “a second time for the same offense.”
Expulsions were ‘unconstitutional,’ attorneys say
Attorneys for the ousted representatives – among them former US Attorney General Eric Holder – sent a letter to Sexton Monday, calling their removals “unconstitutional.”
“Their partisan expulsion was extraordinary, illegal and without any historical or legal precedent,” the attorneys said.
Holder and attorney Scott J. Crosby – who are representing Jones and Pearson, respectively – urged the House to not “compound its errors by taking any further retributive actions.”
“Any partisan retributive action, such as the discriminatory treatment of elected officials, or threats or actions to withhold funding for government programs, would constitute further unconstitutional action that would require redress,” the letter says.
The Congressional Black Caucus released a statement Monday after Jones was reinstated to his seat.
“While this is what the residents of Nashville deserve, we must recognize that Rep. Jones was reappointed to his position not because the Republican majority did the right thing, but because Rep. Jones’ constituents in Nashville, joined by supporters from all over our country, peacefully voiced their concerns about the prevalence of gun violence in our communities and the ongoing assault by Republicans on our democracy,” the statement read.
CNN’s Aya Elamroussi, Shawn Nottingham, Theresa Waldrop, Amy Simonson, Ritu Prasad, Kelly McCleary, Devon Sayers, Sara Smart, Tina Burnside, Isabel Rosales, Kevin Conlon, Mitchell McCluskey and Amy Simonson contributed to this report.