WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Monday, Oct. 2, Tennessee House Rep. Justin Jones (D) filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee, Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R) and others challenging his expulsion from the state’s House of Representatives and certain House rules.
The lawsuit stems from a string of incidents starting in March 2023, when Jones and Tennessee Reps. Justin Pearson (D) and Gloria Johnson (D) joined protestors in the state capitol to call for gun reform. The protests took place after an elementary school shooting days earlier, in which six individuals were killed. In response to the nonviolent protests, Sexton revoked the members’ ID card access and stripped them of their committee assignments, claiming the lawmakers’ actions were out of order and baselessly comparing the protest to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection.
Days later, Jones and Pearson, who are Black, were expelled, while Johnson, who is white, was not. At the time, when asked why she wasn’t expelled but Jones and Pearson were, Johnson responded: “Well, I think it’s pretty clear. I’m a 60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.” The vote to remove Jones was one vote shy of being along party lines.
Jones and Pearson were swiftly reappointed to their seats by their respective city councils in Nashville and Memphis, and later went on to win special elections in landslide victories. In a late August special session, the Republican-controlled House also imposed new rules, seen by some as a response to the incident involving the three Democrats, which gave the House wide power to limit debate, silence members for up to a year and more. An additional ban on members of the public carrying signs into the House chamber was struck down by a judge.
A week after implementing these new rules, Sexton accused Jones of violating one of them, claiming that Jones spoke off-topic. The state House then voted 70-20 to silence Jones for the remainder of a floor session. In response, Jones and his Democratic colleagues left the floor in protest, in what Jones described as a “united” step.
Jones argues that the “Defendants have blocked Representative Jones from expressing views on critical issues that he was elected to express, ensuring that viewpoints dissenting from their own are silenced, neither heard nor spoken,” and seeks “relief for these illegal and unconstitutional actions to silence his and other voices in the Tennessee Legislature.”
Jones alleges that his rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were violated when Sexton removed him from his committees and the House subsequently expelled him in moves that constituted “retaliatory discharge.” Jones is also making First Amendment claims relating to new House rules imposed after his expulsion, arguing that they “infringe upon constitutionally-protected speech… by giving the Speaker arbitrary and unchecked power to bar protected speech for sustained periods of time…”
The complaint additionally argues that the defendants actions have burdened members of the public, claiming that they “disenfranchise the citizens of Tennessee’s 52nd House District by denying them representation in the people’s house by the person they have now elected twice within a nine-month period to speak for them.”
Four other claims were also made by Jones, relating to the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Among them, Jones alleges disparate racial treatment, pointing to the expulsion of him and another Black member but not the third white member for protesting, and claims he was illegally denied an impartial trial.
In his lawsuit, Jones asks for the “full restoration of the benefits, rights, and privileges” he claims he lost as a result of the defendants actions. Jones — who still has not been reinstated to his committees — alleges that he lost a number of his state emails and additionally claims the expulsion resulted in an “ongoing deprivation” of his “duly earned retirement benefits.”