‘Tennessee Three’ lawmaker Justin Jones sues state House Speaker over expulsion, vote to silence him

‘Tennessee Three’ lawmaker Justin Jones sues state House Speaker over expulsion, vote to silence him

Melissa Brown
 USA TODAY NETWORKplayShow CaptionHide Caption#videoDetailsToggle{color:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));cursor:pointer;display:inline-block;font-family:var(–sans-serif,sans-serif);font-size:var(–type-7);font-weight:var( –font-weight-bold,900);line-height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);margin-bottom:-8px}#vdt_hide{margin-bottom:10px}.vdt-flex[hidden]{display:none}.vdt-svg{fill:var( –color-dove-gray,rgba(0,0,0,.6));height:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px);width:var(–spacer-twentyfour,24px)}Biden thanks ‘Tennessee three’ for ‘standing up’President Joe Biden welcomed to the Oval Office the three Tennessee lawmakers who faced expulsion for participating in gun control protests at their statehouse. “You’re standing up for our kids,” Biden said. (April 24)AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones filed a federal lawsuit against the state House Speaker and House administrative officials Tuesday, alleging that Republicans repeatedly violated Jones’ constitutional rights.

Filed in Nashville federal court, the lawsuit argues that House Republican efforts to expel Jones last spring and enact new rules to limit debate during the August special session were unconstitutional and illegal. The Nashville lawmaker, along with two fellow Democrats, were dubbed the “Tennessee Three” after they faced expulsion for participating in gun reform protests.

“Today my attorneys filed a federal lawsuit to hold Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton responsible for his unconstitutional and discriminatory actions,” Jones said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “The people of District 52 deserve to have their voices heard without the threat of undemocratic silencing and retaliation.”

House Republicans expelled Jones and his freshman colleague Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, in April after the two broke House rules and mounted brief gun reform chants on the chamber floor. The pair were frustrated with the lack of legislative action in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood just days before, in which six people were killed.

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Jones was quickly reappointed to his seat by the Nashville Metro council, and he later easily won reelection. He is represented by Jerry Martin, a Nashville lawyer and former U.S. Attorney, as well as New York and Washington D.C.-based attorneys.

Sexton did not immediately respond to The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network, and its request for comment.

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Rep. Justin Jones alleges House Republicans violated his rights

The Nashville Democrat now argues the expulsion “robbed” him of committee appointments and washed out his legislative tenure of a few months, which could affect his standing for benefits in the Tennessee retirement system. Jones also argues he was forced to spend $70,000 and resources to mount a second election campaign after his expulsion.

The lawsuit alleges the expulsion proceedings violated the Fourteenth Amendment as they lacked “due process.”

Though the expulsion proceedings were legislative in nature, Jones’ lawsuit argues the time period between his expulsion notice on April 3 and the expulsion hearings on April 6 deprived him of adequate time and resources to prepare a sufficient defense. The lawsuit states the House was acting in a judicial capacity during the expulsion and argues the proceedings were “rigged against them from the start.”

The lawsuit also points to leaked audio from a House Republican caucus meeting where the GOP fought over the failed expulsion vote of state Rep. Gloria Johnson as Republicans grappled with the intense public backlash over the proceedings.

In the audio, Tennessee House Majority Whip Johnny Garrett admonishes a colleague for asking questions of Johnson during the hearing, “as if that would have made a difference.” 

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“We had the jury already. This obviously wasn’t a trial — but I knew every single one of your vote counts. I knew that we did not have to convince you all,” Garrett said in the audio.

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Lawsuit challenges House rules restricting lawmaker, floor comments

In the lawsuit, Jones also alleges the new rules established in the special session are unconstitutional. Republicans adopted the rules over the objections of Democrats as lawmakers began a contentious session over public safety issues following the Covenant School shooting.

The rules allowed the House to block a lawmaker from speaking in committees and on the House floor if they cause a substantial disruption, or “impugn the reputation” of another House member. The new rules also banned members of the public from carrying signs in House galleries and committee meetings, which has long been allowed.

The rules sparked major controversy and roiled public opinion within days, as members of the public and mothers advocating for increased gun safety regulations were kicked out of a committee meeting for carrying signs.

House Republicans, who hold a supermajority in the chamber, later voted to silence Jones after Sexton ruled he had twice spoken out of order. The vote moved the Democratic caucus to walk off the floor en masse and protest what they viewed as an unequitable application of the rules Republicans established and wield with little oversight.

Reach Melissa Brown at [email protected].

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