NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Democratic Rep. Justin Jones filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging his expulsion in April and House rules that limited lawmakers’ speech, which Republicans sought to impeach Jones in August to silence for part of a day.
The lawsuit filed against House Speaker Cameron Sexton and House administration officials in federal court in Nashville argues that Republicans repeatedly blocked Jones from speaking during the debate, a violation of the country’s right to free speech – and federal constitution.
Additionally, the Nashville member of the Tennessee Three’s lawsuit alleges that his constitutional due process rights were violated by the exclusion process.
Republicans ousted Jones and Rep. Justin Pearson, a young black fellow Democrat, over their megaphone-amplified protest calling for gun control in the House of Representatives, just days after a shooting at a Christian elementary school left six people dead. Republicans saved Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, who is white, from expulsion by one vote for her role in the demonstration.
Jones and Pearson were quickly reappointed and then reelected in special elections, each of which attracted a wave of campaign donations in the few days they were out of office. Jones, Pearson and Johnson were thrust into the national spotlight.
The lawsuit not only demands that the House’s expulsion and debate rules be declared unconstitutional, but also that Jones should be returned to a committee from which he was removed; restored other benefits, including his pre-expulsion seniority level and a full year of credit in the state’s pension system; and further claims for damages and costs awarded.
GOP leaders said the expulsions were necessary to avoid setting a precedent of tolerating disruption of House proceedings by lawmakers through protests. They said the new House rules promote civility, respect and accountability.
Sexton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, Amy Wilhite, said the office was aware of the lawsuit but had not yet received a copy from Jones’ attorneys.
The lawsuit seeks to stop Sexton and the state from “continuing to suppress dissent, whether through the updated House Rules or otherwise, and to seek full restoration of the benefits, rights and privileges they conferred on him (Jones) “illegally withdrew his protected speech in retaliation.”
The House’s new rule, aimed at punishing disruptive members, was approved for the August special session called by Republican Gov. Bill Lee in response to the deadly March shooting at Covenant School. The regulation stipulates that members can be silenced from one day to the rest of the year if they do not comply with the bill under debate.
On the day the House voted to silence Jones, Sexton had warned Jones against calling a Republican’s bills “reprehensible,” “stupid” and “offensive.” Sexton expelled him twice because he said lawmakers should “stop trying to use more weapons to incite a shooting in our schools that would not protect our children.” What’s a small Glock versus an AR-15? “; and then he said the state should better fund mental health in schools and increase teacher salaries instead of putting more police in schools.
In addition to restrictions on debate, House Republicans also introduced a ban on the public holding placards during floor and committee proceedings. A judge in Tennessee blocked enforcement of the sign ban after agreeing with civil rights activists that the ban likely violated free speech rights. The state responded by saying the judge had “prohibited duly elected legislatures from enforcing their own duly enacted rules.”
Few bills were passed during the tense special session, and none of them brought significant changes to gun control. There has been no consideration of a proposal to keep firearms away from people who pose a danger to themselves or others, which Republican Gov. Bill Lee has supported.
The session also ended in a bitter altercation when Sexton and Pearson appeared to have a brief physical interaction, with both accusing each other of shoving shortly after the House adjourned. Pearson and Jones had approached the speaker’s podium, each holding a sign calling for gun control.
Jones is represented in the lawsuit by former U.S. Attorney Jerry Martin and attorneys from a law firm that includes former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder has been on Jones’ legal team for several months.