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Tennessee Lt. Governor says expulsion restriction bill could lead to problems

Tennessee Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally says a bill prohibiting local governments from returning expelled lawmakers to the Legislature could fail a constitutional challenge.

The House passed the measure sponsored by Rep. Johnny Garrett, R-Goodlettsville, on Monday in a party-line vote, however McNally says he has concerns about the constitutional questions the legislation presents.

In an interview with the Tennessee Lookout, McNally said, “The bill has yet to be considered in a Senate committee so I have not yet witnessed any debate on the legislation. I personally would need to hear from the attorney general and other constitutional experts before I would be able to make a final determination on the bill.”

McNally says despite concerns, he isn’t seeking an attorney general’s opinion on the measure, which has not been scheduled for consideration in a Senate committee. The bill would first have to pass both chambers to reach Governor Bill Lee’s desk and become law.

The measure comes in apparent reaction to the 2023 ouster of Democratic Reps. Justin J. Pearson of Memphis and Justin Jones of Nashville. Pearson and Jones led an anti-gun violence rally on the House floor in March of 2023 in the wake of the Covenant School shooting in Nashville. The Metro Nashville Council and Shelby County Commission voted to reappoint Jones and Pearson to the vacant seats less than a week after they were ousted and they won special elections in August of last year securing their seats for the remainder of their term.

Rep. Garrett who sponsored the bill contends it is constitutional even though a House State Government Committee attorney told lawmakers last week the bill likely violates the Constitution.

Sen. Ferrell Haile. R-Gallatin, is carrying the Senate version of the bill, said on Tuesday that he hasn’t looked into the constitutionality of the bill and isn’t making it a priority. He acknowledged that he agrees with the bill’s “principle” but said he plans to talk to Garrett about the measure.

Staff attorney Matt Munday said the Constitution allows local legislative bodies to appoint qualified candidates to the Legislature, and those qualifications mainly involve age, residency and voter registration. He also pointed out lawmakers can’t be expelled twice for the same reason.

Munday said a constitutional amendment likely would be needed to make the change. Such a bill would have to pass two sessions of the General Assembly, the second time on a two-thirds vote, then passage in the next gubernatorial election.

Information from: Tennessee Lookout