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UPDATE: Tennessee House Speaker silences critic, avoids vote on alleged residency fraud
On Monday, Tennessee Representative Justin Jones (D) distributed a letter to his colleagues in the Tennessee House announcing his intention to call a vote of no confidence in House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R). The first two issues highlighted in Jones' letter are Sexton "misrepresenting his residency and being unqualified to represent Tennessee's 25th State House District" and "defrauding Tennessee taxpayers" by accepting an excessive per diem reimbursement for his actual residence in Nashville.
In April 2023, Popular Information broke the news that Sexton secretly purchased a $600,000 home in Nashville. Our reporting forced Sexton to admit that his family lives in Nashville and raised serious questions about whether Sexton can legally represent a district two hours away. We also revealed that Sexton overcharged Tennessee taxpayers $78,000 by collecting per diem payments reserved for representatives who live more than 50 miles from Nashville. In response, a non-profit watchdog group called for state and federal criminal investigations into Sexton's conduct, and more than a dozen residents of Sexton's district filed a civil complaint with the Tennessee Attorney General
The House clerk told Jones he would be permitted to call for a vote of no confidence before the conclusion of Monday's session during a period called "unfinished business." But before Jones got a chance, Sexton orchestrated a vote stripping Jones' right to speak.
The reason that the Tennessee House was meeting is that Governor Bill Lee (R) called a special session of the legislature to address public safety issues in response to a mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville this March that left three children and three adults dead. Shortly after the massacre, Jones and another Democratic representative, Justin Pearson, were expelled by Sexton and Tennessee House Republicans for supposedly violating decorum by speaking out on gun safety on the House floor. Both easily won reelection in a special election earlier this month and regained their positions.
At the outset of the special session, House Republicans pushed through new rules permitting the body to temporarily silence any member who speaks "off-topic" more than once. They also banned members of the gallery from holding signs, but that restriction was blocked by a federal judge as unconstitutional.
Under the new rules, Sexton is the sole arbiter of whether any comments made by a House member are off-topic. On Monday, Sexton first said Jones was off-topic when Jones described a proposal to "allow private schools with pre-kindergarten classes to have policies allowing guns on campus" as "asinine" and "insulting." Sexton found Jones off-topic a second time when Jones criticized a bill to station more armed police officers in schools, saying the policy was ineffective and "what our schools need are mental health professionals." A debate on any legislative proposal involves evaluating the efficacy of the proposal and comparing it to potential alternatives. Prohibiting such discussion is effectively prohibiting any dissent.
Nevertheless, after his second ruling, Sexton called for a vote to prohibit Jones from speaking for the rest of the day. House Republicans followed along, and Jones was silenced. House Democrats left the chamber in protest, and the body quickly recessed.
As a result, Jones was not able to call for a vote of no confidence. That vote and associated debate would have highlighted politically damaging facts about Sexton's real place of residence and his alleged misuse of taxpayer funds.
Jones said he was silenced because of "the vote of no confidence I was going to call for" and vowed to continue fighting. "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."