Three key differences between legislative expulsions in Tennessee and Arizona

On Wednesday, a bipartisan two-thirds majority of the Arizona House of Representatives voted to expel (now-former) Representative Liz Harris. Harris, a first-year legislator, stood accused of disorderly conduct for inviting election conspiracy theorist Jacqueline Breger to testify before a House Committee and then lying about her involvement in Breger’s defamatory testimony. 

Breger spoke uninterrupted for more than 30 minutes on February 23, baselessly accusing elected officials, judges, and the Church of Latter-day Saints of taking bribes from a drug cartel, and claiming recent elections were corrupted and stolen. A House Ethics Committee investigation found that Harris was aware Breger would make criminal allegations and took steps to “avoid compliance with internal House deadlines, which required disclosure of Breger’s presentation in advance” of the hearing. 

The Arizona expulsion comes less than a week after the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson from their seats. Reps. Jones and Pearson, along with fellow Rep. Gloria Johnson, had participated in a protest against gun violence that interrupted proceedings on the House floor. 

Though Reps. Jones and Pearson have since been reinstated in Tennessee, the rarity of legislative expulsions and the quick succession of the TN and AZ removals might tempt conflation. However, the expulsions are drastically different in three key ways, both in their facts and in their implications for democracy.

1. Arbitrary Retribution vs. Due Process Consensus

In Tennessee, Reps. Pearson and Jones were expelled just seven days after participating in a protest on the House floor. Before any investigation or vote, Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton unilaterally stripped them of committee assignments and revoked their ID access. Reps. Pearson and Jones were not allowed to present evidence until the day of the expulsion vote, after Speaker Sexton had already gone on national television to support their removal.

By contrast, Harris’s expulsion was marked by due process and consensus — the result of an established, intensive accountability process. After a House member filed a complaint with the Ethics Committee, the Committee investigated the complaint for over a month, including soliciting a response from Harris and allowing her to present evidence. The investigation found that Harris “knew or was aware that Breger would present criminal allegations” and therefore “engaged in disorderly behavior in violation of Rule 1 of the Arizona House of Representatives.” Rule 1 prohibits “disorderly behavior” and mentions expulsion as a corresponding punishment.

2. Silencing Dissent vs. Ensuring Accountability

As our colleague has written, the Tennessee expulsions were an exercise in raw majoritarian power, designed to silence minority voices. Republican House members expelled Reps. Jones and Pearson, who are Black, for participating in a protest, but declined to do the same for Rep. Johnson, who also participated but is white. This is particularly troubling in light of the long history of disenfranchisement, political violence, and other threats targeting Black Tennesseans seeking to make their voices heard. Arizona’s former Rep. Harris, in contrast, was not targeted because of her racial identity or partisan affiliation. Despite her status as a member of the majority party, Harris was held accountable for actions that clearly violated the legislature’s rules and undermined its integrity.

The votes to expel Pearson and Jones fell on partisan lines: not a single Democrat voted to expel them. Instead, a party with a legislative (and highly gerrymandered) supermajority unilaterally wielded power to remove Black members of its opposition. In contrast, in Arizona, the bipartisan Ethics Committee came to the unanimous finding that Harris had violated House rules before the expulsion vote. And a majority of both Democrats and Republicans supported expelling Harris, including Speaker of the House Ben Toma, Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, and the rest of House Republican leadership. 

3. Corrupting Democratic Institutions vs. Democratic Participation

Tennessee Reps. Jones and Pearson protested alongside other citizens to call for the Assembly to pass gun control legislation in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Nashville. Their speech, though disruptive, was part of the foundational American tradition of peaceful protest. They asked the legislature to take steps within its power in a democracy and did not seek to undermine democratic institutions. While legislatures must be able to enforce rules to conduct the people’s business, expulsion is a tool that should be used sparingly. One act of peaceful protest falls well short of the punishment imposed.

Harris, in contrast, invited Breger to testify and make defamatory allegations, intentionally avoiding rules requiring advance disclosure of an invited speaker’s remarks. Breger’s baseless accusations, including that “public officials accepting bribes include members of the Legislature” and that past elections were fraudulent and the results “planned,” were debunked lies aimed at spreading disinformation — with potential real harm to the people she lied about. 

The very nature of legislative debate necessitates protecting speech with which a majority may disagree. But there is a difference between disruptive protest and unfounded accusations of mass criminal wrongdoing. While the former strengthens the foundations of democracy, the latter serves no purpose other than to sow fear and undermine democratic systems. 

Expelling a member from a legislative chamber is a rare occurrence in a democracy, and one that should not be taken lightly. Expulsion is a favorite tool of autocrats, who use it to silence dissent, flex their unilateral power, and corrupt democratic institutions. But there are moments when expulsion is measured and justified, such as when it is the result of a fair process, ensures accountability and combats the corruption of our institutions for anti-democratic ends.

About the Authors

Three key differences between legislative expulsions in Tennessee and Arizona

Sara Chimene-Weiss


Sara Chimene-Weiss is an advocate whose work focuses on strengthening our democracy through partnerships, advocacy, and litigation at the local, state, and federal levels.

Sara Chimene-Weiss

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