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What could the expulsion of Tennessee lawmakers mean for Texas?

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

Most state legislatures in the U.S. have the ability to remove members, but the practice is rare and usually reserved for lawmakers who face criminal charges.

But after two Democrats were expelled from the Republican-led Tennessee House last week, many are wondering whether that precedent may change, and whether other politically-polarized states might follow suit.

For more on the expulsion of the Tennessee lawmakers and what that could mean for a state like Texas, the Standard spoke with Mark Jones. He’s a political science professor and fellow at the James Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: Give us a brief rundown of the situation in the Tennessee House. There was a protest over gun laws, and there were some Democratic lawmakers involved in that protest. Why were they expelled and on what grounds?

Mark Jones: Well, they were protesting the school shooting that had occurred in Tennessee and the lack of movement on any gun control legislation inside the Tennessee Legislature. Their protest method was using bullhorns and for a short period, they invaded the House floor. That was seen as a breach of decorum by their Republican colleagues, which led them to begin efforts to expel the three members, known as the Tennessee Three.

The two members who were expelled were both Black, and the other member who faced possible expulsion was a white woman. She herself said this was a sign of racism. That became part of the conversation as well. 

Right. Maybe in terms of the reaction to all three of them, but the vote itself… The difference was a small number of votes. That is, she had seven fewer votes to expel than one of her African-American colleagues, and four fewer than the other. So, if there was racism involved, it was more related to the difference between three, four, seven representatives voting to expel her African-American colleagues rather than her. I think more than anything else, this was an issue of partisanship, and race was part of it. The reality is that Tennessee Republicans hold a supermajority in their legislature, 75 out of the 99 seats.

Let’s talk about the rules that served as the grounds for these lawmakers to be expelled. What are the rules in Tennessee, as you understand them? 

The rules in Tennessee allow the Legislature to expel any of their members with a two thirds vote, with the only caveat being that once you expel them once for a charge, you can’t do it the second time. There’s a type of double jeopardy. So, if these two individuals are able to return to the Tennessee Legislature, they can’t be expelled for the same incident.

Unless you’re under a criminal indictment or something along those lines, it’s very rare for a lawmaker in any Legislature to be expelled. How common is it for someone who isn’t facing criminal charges to be expelled?

It almost never happens. What I think is very clear in the Tennessee case is that this was an extreme case of overreach. It was an excessive response to a mild form of civil protest. They could have censured. There are a large number of lower charges absent expulsion. Expulsion generally is seen as something where you only do it as you really have to, and where the grounds are so clear that there really isn’t much debate about it, like felony charges or sexual assault or criminal activity and tax matters.

Let’s turn the spotlight on whether something like this could happen in Texas. There’s been a big conversation about political polarization. Legally speaking, based on what you understand about expulsion rules in the Texas Capitol, could something like what happened in Tennessee happen here?

Yeah, of course it could, because our language is identical to that in Tennessee, which isn’t an accident, in the sense that Sam Houston and many of the early Texans came from Tennessee. Our Constitution mirrors it in many ways. While the Tennessee Constitution of 1796 had this exact same language, our Constitution of 1845 and the one that we currently use from 1876 says the same thing.

The big difference between Texas and Tennessee today is in terms of the Democratic support in the Legislature. In the Tennessee House, Democrats only have 24 of the 99 seats— well below two thirds. In the Texas House, however, Democrats hold 64 of the 150 seats— well above one third of the seats. In the Senate, they hold 12 out of 31— once again, at least moderately above two thirds. So, right now you don’t have the partisan supermajority on the Republican side that could expel Democrats. You would need some Democrats to join with the Republicans to expel any of their members.

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