NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The last time Tennessee lawmakers took a vote to expel a sitting member of the General Assembly, the ousted representative issued a stern warning to his colleagues: “I won’t be the last.”
But for the next 36 years no other lawmaker has been booted under the Legislature’s constitutional power to discipline or oust members deemed to have engaged in “disorderly behavior.”
House Speaker Beth Harwell says that’s likely to change during this week’s special legislative session. The Nashville Republican told reporters last week that an effort to remove state Rep. Jeremy Durham has enough support to meet the two-thirds vote requirement to expel him.
The Franklin Republican lost to a primary challenger in August following the release of a scathing attorney general’s investigation that detailed allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with more than 20 women during Durham’s four years in office. Expelling Durham before November would keep him from qualifying for a state pension once he hits retirement age.
Durham has not said whether he will attend the special session. His attorney has argued that an ouster bid is unconstitutional because it falls outside of the scope of Gov. Bill Haslam’s call to fix a state drunken driving law that could cost the state $60 million in federal road money.
But legislative leaders and legal staffers say that each chamber maintains control over its rules and procedures during a special session, and that removing a lawmaker falls within that authority.
If the move succeeds, Durham will become the first to be removed by his colleagues since then-Rep. Robert Fisher, who was ousted on a 92-1 vote in 1980. The Elizabethton Republican had been convicted of bribery for asking for a bribe to kill a bill.
“It’s hard for me as a legislator to see where courtesy stops and bribery starts,” Fisher told the House before the vote to oust him. “I stand here to tell you it was a frame.”
According to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks, the only previous example of sitting lawmakers being expelled from the General Assembly came when six lawmakers refused to attend an 1866 special legislative session called by then-Gov. William “Parson” Brownlow after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Democratic State Sen. Ophelia Ford of Memphis was removed from the Legislature in 2006 after the upper chamber determined that her 13-vote election win had been tainted by ballots cast in the names of felons and dead voters. But that decision to void Ford’s election didn’t stop her for long: She was re-elected to the Senate later that year.
Ford’s brother Emmitt was nearly expelled from the state House in 1981 after he was convicted of faking a traffic accident to defraud insurance companies.
Ford stunned fellow Democrats by announcing: “I was elected by the people and I have come to be seated.” But he ultimately agreed to resign under heavy pressure before an expulsion vote came to the floor.
State Rep. Joe Armstrong was also going to be the subject of an ouster effort this week in the aftermath of a federal tax fraud conviction, but the Knoxville Democrat announced Friday he would resign before the start of the special session.
Armstrong was already barred from seeking re-election because of the felony conviction, and an ouster would not have affected his pension.
Durham has told television reporters that he wants to mount a defense and confront his anonymous accusers before any vote takes place, arguing that he has not been charged with any crimes.
Without that opportunity, Durham said, the proceedings against him sound more like a “medieval beheading than anything resembling American constitutional principles.”