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The Tennessee legislature couldn’t keep out Rep. Justin Jones. But it’s still trying

Tennessee Republicans and Democratic Rep. Justin Jones remain locked in a bitter back-and-forth nearly a year after the GOP’s failed attempt to expel him from the state House of Representatives instead catapulted Jones to national recognition.

Jones, one of two Black lawmakers expelled then swiftly reinstated after calling for gun control reform on the House floor last year, has been the focus of several headlines in recent weeks as lawmakers gather in Nashville for the 2024 legislative session.

But some members of the House seem set on relitigating the expulsion fight, which helped Jones parlay a seat in the lower chamber of the General Assembly — a humble political office that pays about $28,000 a year — into a megaphone, giving him one of the highest profiles of any of the 7,386 state legislators across the country.

How large that battle still looms was apparent from the first day of the session, when Jones and several other Democrats questioned a new ticketing system implemented by House Speaker Cameron Sexton that restricted the number of people who could observe the session in person.

The following day, lawmakers ruled Jones out of order and prohibited him from speaking after he described Sexton as “drunk with power” during debate over changes to the rules that, in part, dictated who is recognized to speak and how a lawmaker is reprimanded if they run afoul of the rules.

Both sets of changes were seemingly in response to the events last year, when Jones and two other Democrats – together known as the Tennessee Three – led a gun-control protest within the chamber in the wake of a school shooting in Nashville, prompting votes on their expulsions.

State Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, a White woman, was spared. But Jones, who represents part of Nashville, and Justin Pearson of Memphis were expelled, albeit for only several days: Local bodies appointed Jones and Pearson interim successors to their vacated seats, forcing their reinstatements. Both won special elections in August, making their returns to the House permanent for the remainder of their two-year terms.

Two pieces of proposed legislation aim to prevent that from happening again. One GOP legislator has filed a bill that would prohibit legislators expelled from the General Assembly from holding their seat for four years, while another’s would prevent a county legislative body from nominating the expelled member to fill their former seat.

“We’re living rent-free in the heads of my Republican colleagues, so that’s all I’ll say,” Jones told CNN affiliate WTVF.

Separately, the chair of the House Republican Caucus has called for Jones to resign after he refused to lead the House in the Pledge of Allegiance earlier this month, WTVF reported.

Taken together, the events of this session make clear that the expulsion fight will not be easily forgotten.

For his part, Jones does not appear a reluctant antagonist for Tennessee Republicans, who control the House with a supermajority, and for Speaker Sexton in particular. Jones filed a lawsuit against the speaker last October over the expulsion vote and changes to the rules for a special session held in August, during which Jones was also prohibited from speaking after being ruled out order.

The lawsuit contends both incidents violated Jones’ rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments of the US Constitution. In December, Sexton and his co-defendants – who include members of the clerk’s office and the sergeant at arms – filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which remains ongoing. The speaker’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

‘Drunk with power’

The protest by the Tennessee Three followed a shooting on March 27, 2023, when six people, including three 9-year-olds, were killed at the Covenant School in Nashville, reigniting the debate over firearm safety and gun-control reform across the US.

Jones argued he and his colleagues were giving voice “to the grievances of people who have been silenced.” Republicans were unconvinced, and the vote to expel him split along party lines, 72-25. Pearson was ousted, 69-26, while Johnson was saved in a 65-30 vote.

But within days, Jones and Pearson were reappointed and returned to the state Capitol. By that time, the national ascent of the Tennessee Three was apparent, underscored by a later visit the White House, where they met with President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss measures to curtail gun violence.

In early August, Jones and Pearson won special elections for their seats, just in time for a special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to address firearms and public safety. The session produced little progress on the issue of firearms, but it provided perhaps the first indication the expulsion battle still lingered.

A week into the session, the House voted to “silence” Jones for the remainder of the day after he was twice ruled out of order after sharply rebuking proposed legislation. Democrats, infuriated, walked out as gun-control advocates seated in the gallery yelled in protest. Sexton ordered it cleared “for disorderly behavior.”

Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones is seen at the US Capitol in April 2023. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images
Tennessee state Rep. Justin Jones is seen at the US Capitol in April 2023. - Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

It’s against this backdrop the General Assembly reconvened on January 9, when some lawmakers learned for the first time about new restrictions on the west side of the gallery.

CNN affiliate WSMV reported the policy put in place by Sexton included a ticketing system, where each lawmaker was provided one ticket per day to give to a guest who wanted to watch the session in person. The Tennessean reported the rule cut the number of seats available to the public in half.

Jones was among several Democrats – including Pearson and Johnson – who questioned the new policy on the House floor. Sexton’s office did not respond to a request for details about the ticketing system, nor the rationale for the change.

Tensions boiled over the next day, during debate over new rules proposed by the House Rules Committee. House Majority Leader William Lamberth explained the changes, one of which included giving Sexton the power to choose which member would speak first if multiple raised their hands at the same time.

Together, the changes were meant to “allow for more debate, allow for more deliberation and allow for more voices to be heard,” Lamberth said.

During debate, Jones said he had seen something “that really appalled me” that “related to these rules.” Jones claimed he and Lamberth had tried to take the elevator with Sexton the day prior, but the speaker’s security prevented Lamberth from doing so.

“I want to make clear that these rules are not about Democrats versus Republicans,” Jones said, “but it’s about each of us as members and a speaker who is drunk with power.”

Another lawmaker accused Jones of disparaging the speaker, and the House voted 68-20 to stop Jones from speaking on the matter. The rules changes ultimately passed 70-19.

Sexton’s office did not respond to questions about what precipitated the changes by the rules committee, nor about the elevator incident.

A refusal to lead the Pledge of Allegiance

Earlier this month, WTVF reported Republicans were calling on Jones to resign after he declined to lead the Pledge of Allegiance when the opportunity fell to him the morning of February 1.

After Jones called the president of the Native American Indian Association of Tennessee to give the invocation, Sexton announced Jones would not lead the pledge.

“I want the words on that pledge, you know, to be true. Liberty and justice for all. And I serve in a body where that has not been the case,” Jones later told WTVF of his decision, noting he comes from a family of veterans.

“That my colleagues who sit in that chamber with me have rolled back liberty and justice when it comes to women, when it comes to Black and brown communities, when it comes to the poor.”

The decision angered some Republicans, however.

“In my opinion, he should resign. That is an embarrassment to veterans and to people who have come before us,” said Rep. Jeremy Faison, chair of the House Republican Caucus. “That’s a disgrace what you saw this morning.”

Jones told WTVF he would not resign.

Berated by a House staffer

It’s worth noting that Jones and Sexton are not always at odds.

On January 9, Jones was berated by a House staffer in front of his office, telling CNN the staffer said he didn’t “belong here” and was not respected by other members.

The staffer, who was assigned to a Democratic lawmaker, has been suspended through May 3, according to Connie F. Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration.

Sexton, Jones said in an interview, agreed the incident was “highly inappropriate and cannot be accepted, because ultimately the speaker makes a final decision as to whether a staff member is suspended or fired.”

But it was also indicative of an environment where it’s difficult to work, Jones said, one that has not changed since his reinstatement.

“The environment here in the Tennessee legislature has not changed since we came back,” he said.

“I think that’s something that’s important for the nation to know, is that we were reinstated and people saw what happened, but we were reinstated into a toxic work environment.”

CNN’s Devon Sayers contributed to this report.

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