Republican lawmakers silence

Republican lawmakers silence

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee House Democratic caucus on Monday walked off the floor of the lower chamber to protest a disciplinary vote against a member of the so-called Tennessee Three, sparking a scene remarkably similar to legislative protests earlier this year in which the freshman Democrat was expelled from the General Assembly.

Lawmakers voted 70-20 to discipline Rep. Justin Jones after House Speaker Cameron Sexton twice ruled Jones out of order during the House floor session Monday afternoon for what Sexton saw as Jones speaking off-topic on the bills at hand. The disciplinary vote meant Jones was silenced for the remainder of the floor session, though he could cast votes.

A second vote during this special session could lead to a three-day silencing.

The Democratic caucus left the floor en masse in what they said was solidarity and frustration with the unfair application of House rules. The tense House floor session came as Tennessee lawmakers returned a second week of a special session that Republican Gov. Bill Lee called in response to the deadly Covenant School shooting in Nashville in March.

The House and Senate remained in a deadlock over various proposals as demonstrators and families expressed their frustration over the legislative process.

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‘This is very disheartening, this is very troubling’

Republican lawmakers attempted to get the House floor session back on track after the Democrats left, as members of the gallery above erupted in anger with yells of “racists” and “fascists.”

Sexton had gaveled Jones out of order during Monday debate in what has become a frequent interaction between the House leader and the freshman Nashville Democrat, who visibly riles members of the supermajority while regularly challenging their bills in floor speeches.

Jones had planned to introduce a letter calling for a vote of no confidence in Sexton at the end of the floor session.

“The House is out of order under Cameron Sexton’s leadership. This is very disheartening, this is very troubling. This is a step toward authoritarianism, and we should all be troubled by this,” Jones said. “Our Democratic caucus was united. We walked out because that’s a charade, a sham happening in there. And the people are united in challenging authoritarianism.”

The Monday vote came under controversial rules House Republicans passed last week that allow new disciplinary actions to be taken against members for “decorum” issues on the floor. House Democrats last week decried the rules, arguing House Republicans through their supermajority hold the power to define what might be out of order.

“The problem here is you have the discretion to say what is or isn’t out of order,” said House Minority Leader Karen Camper said to Sexton. “Members were asking what was out of order. It appeared to me, the little bit I did hear, is the member was trying to make an analogy with respect to the bill.”

Gallery members protest against disciplinary vote

The vote against Jones on Monday threw Democrats’ previous objections to rules changes in sharp relief. His Democratic colleagues tried to get clarity on the House floor about what specifically Jones said that was out of order. At least one lawmaker asked for a transcript of what Jones said, which Sexton said wasn’t required under the rules.

Rep. Justin Pearson rose to point out that Rep. Gino Bulso had been gaveled out of order twice while presenting a different bill. But the House clerk argued Sexton had issued first an unofficial warning to Bulso before finding him out of order.

This explanation appeared to infuriate the public gallery, and Democrats on the floor. As the vote went down, the crowd screamed at Sexton, yelling, “This is a fascist state!” and “You’re racist!”

Chants only grew louder as state troopers began swarming the gallery to clear it. Demonstrators stayed in their seats as troopers began asking them to leave, but slowly cleared out into the halls to continue chanting.

Meanwhile, in the Democrats absence, House Republicans passed through House Bill 7073, a Sexton-sponsored bill that would allow some teenagers to be sentenced as adults in criminal courts. Criminal justice advocates last week testified against the bill, arguing it would have negative effects on rehabilitation efforts for young people who are still maturing.

Prior to the Jones discipline vote, the House passed a number of bills related to mental health funding and providing firearm storage locks. The majority of the bills passed with bipartisan support, though Democrats often cast their votes through gritted teeth, arguing the proposed changes were an anemic response to the problem of gun violence in Tennessee communities.

“There are no pats on the back or moral victories for passing legislation that actually isn’t going to make our children safer,” Pearson said.