Apr 14, 2023

The expulsion of two Tennessee Democrats.

The expulsion of two Tennessee Democrats.
Protesters at the Tennessee state capitol building. (Image: WREG News) 

Plus, a reader question on Clarence Thomas.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

Today, we are covering the expulsion of two Democratic lawmakers in Tennessee. Plus, we dive into the Clarence Thomas controversy in today's reader question.

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Quick hits.

  1. Federal authorities arrested Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old Air National Guardsman, for the leak of highly classified U.S. documents earlier this year. (The arrest)
  2. San Francisco police arrested a tech executive in connection with the fatal stabbing of Cash App founder Bob Lee. Police say the suspect, Nima Momeni, knew Lee. (The arrest)
  3. The Justice Department is asking the Supreme Court to intervene in a lower court ruling that allowed the FDA's approval of mifepristone to stand, but imposed restrictions on how it could be shipped (The request). Separately, the Florida state legislature passed a six-week abortion ban. (The ban)
  4. The Biden administration proposed a new rule to extend Medicaid access to approximately 600,000 DACA recipients. (The proposal)
  5. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he will return to the Senate on Monday after five weeks away while recovering from a fall. (The return)

Today’s topic.

Tennessee’s legislators. On Wednesday, Tennessee lawmaker Justine Pearson was reinstated to the state House after a unanimous vote from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Pearson was the second of two Democrats to get voted back into office after being expelled by Tennessee state Republicans for leading a gun control protest that spilled into the state capitol and disrupted proceedings.

The drama began days after a school shooting in Nashville that killed six people, including three children. Rep. Pearson (D-Memphis) and Justin Jones (D-Nashville), joined by Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville), led chants with a megaphone and guided citizens into the Capitol building. Hundreds of school children, teens, and parents gathered at the capitol to call for tighter gun control measures, and protesters lined the hallways and chanted at the state’s Republican dominated legislature as they entered the capitol building for a vote on an education bill.

Republicans in Tennessee have loosen gun control regulations in recent years, and during proceedings for the education legislation, protesters screamed from the gallery that “children are dead” and implored the legislators to act. Pearson, 29, and Jones, 27, temporarily stopped proceedings while shouting “power to the people” and “no justice, no peace” through a megaphone.

In Tennessee, state legislators can be expelled with a two-thirds vote from their chamber. Days later, Republicans, who have a supermajority, voted to expel Pearson and Jones. The lawmakers voted 72-25 to expel Jones, and 69-26 to expel Pearson. They cited “disorderly behavior” in the proceedings and said the two lawmakers broke house rules on conduct and decorum.

The vote to expel Johnson failed by one vote, 65 to 30. Both Pearson and Jones are Black and Johnson is white, which resulted in accusations of racism. Asked why she thought she survived the vote, while the other two legislators didn’t, Johnson said “it might have something to do with the color of our skin.” The single legislator who voted to expel Jones and Pearson but not Johnson cited their use of a megaphone in the chamber.

Expulsion of lawmakers from state legislative bodies is extremely rare. In Tennessee, only eight lawmakers have ever been expelled in the history of the state, including six Confederates who refused to affirm the citizenship of formerly enslaved Black people in the 19th century. One other was convicted of bribery in the 20th century and one was expelled for sexual misconduct more recently.

However, in the weeks following the expulsion, both lawmakers were reinstated to the House by local officials. First, the Nashville Metropolitan Council restored Jones in a unanimous vote, and then the Shelby County Board of Commissioners did the same for Pearson. Neither lawmaker missed a vote during their absences.

Today, we’re going to explore the controversy with views from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left opposed the expulsions, arguing that they were undemocratic and dangerous.
  • Some say the right’s expulsion of Jones and Pearson was racially motivated.
  • Others say this episode is part of a larger Republican authoritarian streak to neutralize opposition.

In The New York Times, Charles M. Blow said Tennessee Republicans “exposed their authoritarian streak.”

“The same Tennessee House of Representatives that had resisted expelling a Republican member accused of sexually assaulting three teenage girls — and who was recorded apologizing to one of them, never specifying what for — expelled two young Black representatives,” Blow said. “Their offense? Halting House proceedings by protesting the chamber’s intransigence on gun legislation.” The House Republicans were “furious,” and “somehow” this is what crossed the line.

Several legislators “ludicrously compared” the protests to the “deadly insurrection of January 6, 2021,” when a “mob stormed the U.S. capitol,” assaulted police and destroyed property “in an effort to derail the democratic process.” These Republicans “wanted to bring these Black members to heel” and to “demonstrate the power of the proverbial whipping post: to publicly shame, signify dominance and try to force submission.”

In CNN, Rep. Justin Pearson wrote about why Republicans’ attempts to expel him backfired.

“If decorum was breached, it was by the heavy-handed Republican supermajority in the Tennessee House, which denied us the chance to speak during regular order, cut off our microphones, later disabled our voting machines and revoked our access to the building,” Pearson wrote. The spectacle “was a gross miscalculation” by Republicans, and “it turns out most Americans care deeply about democracy.”

The Republican lawmaker who authored the expulsion “told me that he and his White conservative colleagues were ‘enraged’ that I had had the audacity to walk, unbidden, to the front of the chamber and acknowledge the grieving families.” But “legislators don’t need permission to walk the well of the House. There is no sanction against our peaceful actions during recess. And we are required by the Tennessee State Constitution to object to policies injurious to the well-being of our constituents.”

The New York Times editorial board called it an “undemocratic power play.”

“Plenty of disruptive, disrespectful and even potentially criminal behavior has gone entirely unaddressed. Indeed, just a few years ago, Tennessee Republicans declined to take action against a member of their caucus credibly accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls many years earlier,” the board said. By contrast, Pearson and Jones were “banished” for using a bullhorn to lead demonstrators in chants for more gun control.

“The protest was rowdy but peaceful. No property was damaged. No one was arrested or injured. When the Tennessee House speaker, Cameron Sexton, called for security to clear the chamber’s galleries, the crowd left,” the board said. Nonetheless, Sexton tried to claim the demonstration was “at least equivalent, maybe worse” than January 6. Every institution has to balance debate and “disruptive protest,” but “not every protest poses a threat or merits a punitive response.”

What the right is saying.

  • The right mostly supports the expulsions, though some argue they were excessive.
  • Some say the legislators can legislate or be activists, but not both.
  • Others say this was not an ordinary protest and they broke the House rules, so they should be punished.

In The American Conservative, Jude Russo said “expel them all.”

“It makes no sense for members of government to engage in civil disobedience against the government of which they are members. All three legislators should be expelled,” Russo said. The premise of constitutional government “is that policy is made and changed by elected representatives,” and the premise of civil disobedience is to respond to the “ordinary legal political” process not addressing a pressing need. If you are a member of the government and think the political system has broken down, “you have thrown in your lot with extrapolitical means,” Russo said.

“In the case of the three Tennesseans, the contradiction is emphasized by the disruption of the assembly’s normal deliberative process,” he said. This departure “may be just,” but to insist on “remaining part of deliberative representative bodies is to evince a desire to work things out through politics, through making laws, through the power you have by the agreed upon procedures of deliberative government. Pick one.” Lawmakers are distinct from private citizens, who do “not hold political power.”

In his newsletter, Erick-Woods Erickson criticized the decision to expel the lawmakers.

"I think we can all concede that the Tennessee House did not have to boot the members," he wrote. "In fact, a reasonable argument can be made that the Tennessee Republicans, by going straight to expulsion of the House members, have taken away all incentive to de-escalate." If they had gone to censure, "it would have been a measured tactic" that set a standard for a second disruption. "Now, Democrats see martyrdom and fundraising so we can probably expect more disruptions."

"I have several friends who are right-of-center and blasted the Tennessee Republicans for 'playing to the base' instead of being leaders," Erickson added. Republicans "saw their state capitol" swarmed and saw it as a "breach of conduct and a failure to listen to even the Sergeant-at-Arms." Still, since the national press will "only ever make the GOP the bad guy," maybe Republicans should "play to form and hold their base."

In National Review, Charles C. W. Cooke said the media and Democrats are lying about what happened in Tennessee.

The two Democrats were not expelled for “choosing to ‘defy Republican-endorsed policies.’ … they were expelled because they broke the rules of the legislature and they ground all legislative business to a halt.” This dishonesty is ‘typical’ of what the press has done. ‘Politico described the move as ‘a boisterous protest.’ NPR described it as ‘a raucous protest.’ ABC reported that the issue was that the legislators were ‘participating in a gun control protest.’ They weren’t.”

Instead, these “corrupt euphemisms” are being used to lionize people “who were engaged in the sort of anti-democratic mob behavior that, until about five minutes ago, we were all being encouraged to condemn.” They were expelled for leading “a mob onto the floor of the House,” disrupting “regular order,” and shouting at colleagues through a bullhorn. You can think their punishment was too harsh, but you can’t pretend “it was a mere ‘protest’ of the sort one might expect to see” in the Nashville streets.

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • Expulsion should be reserved for the most extraordinary circumstances.
  • There is plenty to criticize about the lawmakers outside of these events.
  • But I do not think Pearson and Jones met those circumstances.

If a legislative body is going to usurp the will of voters and remove someone who was democratically elected, the reasons need to be very, very good.

That is my fundamental position coming into a story like this — and it’s one I feel strongly about. In the wake of January 6, when Democrats were calling for some Republican senators to be removed from office for “abetting an insurrection,” I objected on the grounds that we needed explicit proof any of those Republicans encouraged or facilitated violence. The bar needs to be very high to take the extraordinary step of expulsion.

And, not to state the obvious, but this was not January 6 (as plenty of conservatives have tried to claim — whether cheekily or not). Proceedings on the floor were interrupted for about five minutes. The only people on the House floor were lawmakers. As far as I can tell, no property damage was done, nobody clashed with police, nobody was hiding in bunkers, no lawmakers were threatened, and no violence was committed. The education bill was passed easily after a brief recess, and protesters left when they were told to.

It’s true that Pearson and Jones were disruptive, which you can judge for yourself by watching videos of the protest that are online. A  big part of why they chose this technique is probably because of their history as activists, which is an increasingly common resume bullet point for young lawmakers on the left these days. There are videos and pictures of Jones standing atop police cars during riots in 2020, and even throwing a traffic cone through a window at a driver.

Pearson, too, seems to have transformed from a moderate pleading for “the radical middle” to a fight-the-man civil rights activist. Of course, plenty of people change from their early to late 20s — I know I certainly did. But there is always something unseemly about politicians who try to manifest new images and brands. All of this is worthy of call out or criticism separate from the events that took place in Tennessee.

But expulsion? For this protest? I’m not convinced.

Jude Russo’s piece in the American Conservative (under “What the right is saying”) was the most compelling argument I found in favor. He argued, effectively, that you can either be a legislator participating in the process or an activist fighting the process. But you can’t be both. I think he’s right — Pearson and Jones do need to choose their roles, and while they are welcome to encourage or even invite citizens to protest and disrupt, they themselves shouldn’t grind the legislative process to a halt. They are the legislative process. There is a reason this kind of thing is against the rules.

Even still, the expulsion felt excessive. Apparently a lot of Tennessee voters agreed. That both legislators were returned to the Capitol without missing a vote — with unanimous backing — is a testament to this. In the end, it was a big misstep by Tennessee Republicans. They overreached and ended up martyring their political opponents, without anything real to show for it, which is never good. As it usually does, the democratic process held up quite well. But it’s unfortunate it was challenged this way in the first place.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: What do you make of the Clarence Thomas story?

—  Xavier from Madison, Wisconsin

Tangle: This was almost the topic of today's newsletter. Unfortunately, the story got a little dated before we could get to it. In case you missed it, ProPublica released a report that Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas was receiving gifts, including luxury trips, from Republican mega-donor Harlan Crow every year. News of the gifts set off a firestorm, and Thomas eventually released a statement claiming he had consulted other justices and judges who said he did not have to report them. The donor, Crow, was then accused of being some kind of Nazi sympathizer for owning a bunch of fascist paraphernalia (I think the accusations against Crow were baseless smears).

There are two things that are true at once about Thomas: First, he should not be accepting these gifts. Full stop. Just a few months ago, I wrote a special Friday edition advocating for a Supreme Court code of conduct. If I got my wish, that code of conduct would include prohibiting judges from accepting single trips valued at $500,000 from political mega donors. Duh.

Second, though, is that Thomas didn't technically break any rules. But I’ll say again: This is the problem. There are no good regulations on what Supreme Court justices can and can't do. Previously, justices were required to file disclosures of gifts they have received, but those disclosures include exemptions for gifts given by friends. Crow and Thomas are definitely friends. Last month, disclosures for federal judges were made more stringent, but overnight stays at personal vacation homes owned by friends were still exempt. It seems like these trips fell into that category.

So, as far as I can tell, Thomas is right that he didn't have to disclose the trips. But he is a Supreme Court justice. His judgment — if you'll excuse the double meaning — is supposed to be among the best in the world. Sound judgment would have been to reject the gifts based on how it would look, especially at a time when trust in the Court is eroding so swiftly. And if you are going to accept them, the absolute bare minimum should have been to report them publicly.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is holding up the rollout of a $16 billion health record system that continues to face issues. Officials from the VA and Oracle Corp., which acquired the company that runs the system, are negotiating the contract to help provide the VA with a functional medical record system. This specific system is already used by the Department of Defense and is meant to provide seamless record keeping for troops from the time they enlist until they die, but some in Congress are now calling to cancel the project. Just five of the VA's 170 locations have adopted the system since 2017. WSJ has the story on the problems.


  • 20. The number of members of Congress who have been expelled since 1797.
  • 15. The number of expulsions from the Senate.
  • 17. The total number of expelled members who were thrown out due to support of the Confederacy in 1861 and 1862.
  • Eight. The number of Tennessee lawmakers who have ever faced expulsion.
  • Six. The number who were thrown out due to supporting the Confederacy.
  • ~200,000. The estimated number of Tennessee citizens represented by Reps. Jones, Pearson and Johnson combined.

The extras.

  • One year ago, we did not have a newsletter, but I had just written about the one year anniversary of quitting my job.
  • The most clicked link in Wednesday's newsletter was the Ground News story on Riley Gaines being assaulted.
  • H-E-L-P: 44.6% of Tangle readers said we should do more to help Ukraine, 16.4% said we should do less, and 21.7% said we're providing the right amount of support.
  • Nothing to do with politics: An NBA player's daughter singlehandedly swung the outcome of a game by screaming maniacally every time the opposing team shot free throws. It's my favorite video of the year.
  • Take the poll. How did you feel about the Tennessee legislature expulsions? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

A doctoral student from the United Kingdom is solving a problem in Ukraine many people have overlooked: Windows. Harry Blakiston Houston has created an easy-to-assemble plastic window for homes and buildings damaged by bullets and bombs in Ukraine. Right now, millions of people in Ukraine are living without sufficient insulation or protection, so Houston created a window out of polyethylene, PVC piping, pipe insulation, and duct tape that provides four layers of protection. It costs about $15 per square meter and can be built in 15 minutes. "There was an old woman in Mykolaiv, in southern Ukraine, who had been sleeping in her bathtub for two months because it was the warmest place in her house," he said. "We were able to get her back to some kind of normality after the windows went in." BBC has the story.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.