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This Week in Statehouse Action: Arrested Development edition
Somehow it’s September already, which means all sorts of things to all sorts of People Everyday.
To me, it means that campaign season is really kicking into high gear.
Which means it’s time to talk about Virginia …
… soon! To be super honest, stuff doesn’t get super interesting in the Commonwealth until after Labor Day, so that will keep.
And there’s just so much other stuff to talk about in the meantime.
Yup, we’re back to the Volunteer State, because those cats just insist on being newsworthy in the worst ways.
Tennessee’s normal legislative session has been over since April, but – as a result of a school shooting in late March and the resulting protests and general hubbub – GOP Gov. Bill Lee summoned lawmakers back to Nashville for a week in August.
Tennessee is one of those states where special sessions have to be called for very specific reasons, and Lee called this one over “public safety,” because guns don’t kill people, public safety kills people…?
(Also, technically special sessions are called “extraordinary sessions” in Tennessee, and as you’ll see, it was, indeed … extraordinary.)
Anyway, Lee set forth a specific set of policy proposals to be considered by the GOP-dominated legislature in the weeklong session, most of which dealt specifically with mental health and only one of which pertained at all to guns:
Measures encouraging the safe storage of firearms, which do not include the creation of penalties for failing to safely store firearms.
When your proposed gun safety measure specifically says that there will be no penalties for violating it …
… well, I guess you’re in Tennessee.
One way in which this special session was, ahem, “extraordinary” is that it was the first time lawmakers came together since Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson were returned by voters to the seats their Republican colleagues ejected them from back in April.
Republican lawmakers, likely mindful of how bad they looked after their own shenanigans in April, began the session by ramming through new rules of conduct that were clearly intended to stifle protests and dissent from both citizens and lawmakers.
A cap was set for how many people could enter the Capitol building, and House Republicans closed one of the two galleries to the public, only allowing access to credentialed media, staff, and lobbyists.
The public was also prohibited from carrying signs – already restricted in size to a typical sheet of printer paper – in the House gallery (though gun safety advocates immediately sued and the rule was quickly blocked).
The new rules also gave House Speaker Cameron Sexton expansive new powers to silence his fellow lawmakers.
Previously, the Speaker could temporarily cut off a member’s microphone if he decided they were disruptive or off-topic, or if they personally insulted a House member during debate on a bill.
But the new rules … oh, they take silencing dissent to a whole new level.
Now, House lawmakers have “three strikes” on disruptions.
A House member can’t debate or make remarks on the floor for three days after the first time Sexton deems them disruptive.
On the second offense, it’s six days of silence.
A third offense results in a ban for the rest of the special session.
When Sexton deems a member “off-topic,” lawmakers get an extra strike, so to speak.
On the first offense, the lawmaker’s mic is cut off.
On the second offense, the speaker won’t recognize the lawmaker on the House floor for three days.
On the third offense, it’s no recognition for six days.
The fourth strike results in being silenced for the rest of the special session.
And if you’re reading these rules and thinking, Huh, this seems ripe for just silencing differing opinions generally, boy howdy are you right.
It started shortly after the special session kicked off last week, when members of the public attending a subcommittee hearing had the temerity to applaud when a bill they didn’t like was tabled.
The subcommittee chair ordered cops to eject everyone who wasn’t a legislator from the room.
Some of the attendees – including moms of students at the school where the March shooting occurred – were in tears while getting kicked out.
Reportedly, Republicans pulled their kicking-crying-mothers-out-of-committee-hearings routine multiple times.
Of course, it got worse from there.
On Monday, Sexton deemed remarks from Rep. Justin Jones – yup, one of the Black lawmakers Republicans voted to eject in April – “off-topic,” not once, but twice.
Here’s what happened:
The House was debating a Republican bill that proposed to have armed officers serve as school resource officers (SROs) in every state public school.
During said debate, Jones questioned the measure’s effectiveness: “SROs have not been shown to reduce instances of mass shootings.”
Jones added that Tennessee schools instead need more funding for mental health professionals and counselors: “We need to pay our teachers better, we don’t need more police in our schools.”
Sexton interrupted him: “Representative Jones, you are off the bill again” – suggesting that this was at least a second offense, which, as noted above, would result in Jones being completely blocked from participating in legislative debate for three days.
But, despite the fact that being accused of being “off-topic” is entirely up to the extremely subjectively sus opinion of the Speaker, actually silencing Jones required an actual full House vote.
But when Republicans hold a 75-23 majority in the chamber, how do you really expect that to go?
Largely like Jones’ expulsion vote, it turns out (70-20, specifically).
Seventy Republicans voted to silence Jones.
Jones’ Democratic colleagues responded by walking off the House floor in protest.
… I mean, frankly Jones’ comments seemed pretty salient to the debate but what do I know I’m just the guy who’s been watching legislative sessions for fun for the past 20 years
Plus, Sexton had also accused one of his fellow Republicans of being “out of order” twice but didn’t subject his colleague to a silencing vote.
There may have been more than petty partisan politics at work here, though.
Earlier that same day, Jones had publicly announced that he intended to force a vote of “no confidence” in Sexton’s leadership – something he could obviously no longer do when Republicans took away his right to speak.
By the by, Jones’ push for a no confidence vote wasn’t just partisan posturing; he’s totally right that the House Speaker has been robbing taxpayers.
Here’s what’s up with Sexton:
Shortly after Reps. Jones and Pearson were expelled in April, GOP House Speaker Cameron Sexton came under fire after reporting revealed that the speaker secretly purchased a $600,000 house in Nashville in 2021 where he and his family live year-round – but is nowhere near the rural district Sexton represents.
Sexton claims to live in a condo in Crossville, a small city in his district that’s a good two hours from Nashville.
Despite his fancy home near the state capital, Sexton has claimed per diem reimbursements for his travel from the district to Nashville for years.
These per diems are paid by taxpayers and came out to about $92,000 since his secret mansion purchase.
The day after Jones’ temporary silencing, Republicans moved to adjourn the special session. Absolutely no gun safety bills were passed.
And credit where it’s due – I’ve been talking a lot about House shenanigans, but Senate Republicans were really the ones who hamstrung the special session from go.
The majority in the upper chamber gaveled in and out of committees within minutes, accommodating little debate and refusing to even take up most of the governor’s proposed legislation.
After six days of “work,” the legislature ultimately sent Lee just a few bills, some of which merely codified existing policy, including measures that would require the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to produce a comprehensive report on human trafficking, ensure faster updates to the state’s background check system, and provide incentives for the safe storage of guns at home (while also providing no penalties for not storing guns safely).
Lawmakers also approved some funding to beef up some mental health and security resources.
While the special session was absolutely a mess from start to finish (gun safety groups and mothers from the Covenant school where the March shooting occurred weren’t the only ones who showed up at the Capitol; pro-gun groups and the Proud Boys were also there), but the finish really tears it.
A special session called to grapple with violence ended in … well, a little bit of violence.
After Sexton adjourned the session, he bumped into Rep. Justin Pearson (the other Black lawmaker Republicans voted to eject in April) as the latter was standing near the speaker’s dais, holding a sign saying “Protect Kids Not Guns.”
The lawmakers’ accounts of what occurred differ, naturally; Pearson said that Sexton shoulder-checked him, while Sexton claims that his security guard (security guard? On the House floor? How much is that costing taxpayers?) “nudged” him into Pearson and that Pearson then pushed him back.
The lawmakers began yelling at each other, and other Republicans rushed to encircle the Speaker.
House GOP Leader William Lamberth reportedly briefly went “toe-to-toe” with Pearson before backing down.
Republicans then scurried from the chamber, chased by boos and cries that Sexton should be ejected.
The special session cost Tennessee taxpayers about $348,000.
Let’s take a quick trip to Wisconsin.
I wrote in this space a couple of weeks back that Republicans were already looking at ways to prevent the state’s newest state Supreme Court justice, progressive Janet Protasiewicz, from ruling a new lawsuit over the state’s legislative maps.
Protasiwicz’s swearing in gave the court its first progressive majority (4-3) since 2008.
Last week, legislative Republicans formally requested that Protasiewicz recuse herself from lawsuits seeking to overturn their incredibly gerrymandered maps.
This week, attorneys in those cases filed arguments objecting to the request, saying that there’s no legal or ethical obligation for her to step aside; one filing even accused Republicans of seeking to nullify the results of the April election that Protasiewicz won.
But as an erudite consumer of this missive, you know that legislative Republicans don’t actually expect Protasiewicz to recuse herself.
Rather, this is all the opening act of their plans to impeach her, which Assembly Republicans need only a simple majority to accomplish and which would prevent her from ruling on any cases until the state Senate rules on her “guilt.”
Remember that special election in Ohio that Republicans hoped would make it impossible for a pro-reproductive rights constitutional amendment ballot measure to pass in the fall?
Several weeks ago in this space, I went into some detail about how and why Issue 1 (the ballot measure that would have arbitrarily raised the threshold for passing constitutional amendments to 60%) was forced onto the ballot by GOP lawmakers for an (otherwise outlawed) August special election.
And then a couple of weeks ago, I discussed how embarrassingly their plot failed – 57%-43%, specifically.
So the threshold for passing all ballot measures in Ohio remains the same as for winning any other election – a simple majority vote.
So obviously, anti-abortion Republicans are turning to other methods to prevent reproductive rights from becoming protected by the state’s constitution.
Specifically, they’re messing with the language that will actually appear on the ballot in November.
Over 700,000 Ohioans signed petitions with the following summary language:
The Amendment would amend Article I of the Ohio Constitution by adding Section 22, titled “The Right to Reproductive Freedom with Protections for Health and Safety.”
The Amendment provides that:
1. Every individual has a right to make and carry out one’s own reproductive decisions, including but not limited to decisions on contraception, fertility treatment, continuing one’s own pregnancy, miscarriage care, and abortion.
2. The State shall not, directly or indirectly, burden, penalize, prohibit, interfere with, or discriminate against either an individual’s voluntary exercise of this right or a person or entity that assists an individual exercising this right, unless the State demonstrates that it is using the least restrictive means to advance the individual’s health in accordance with widely accepted and evidence-based standards of care.
3. However, abortion may be prohibited after fetal viability. But in no case may such an abortion be prohibited if in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician it is necessary to protect the pregnant patient’s life or health.
4. As used in this Section, “Fetal viability” means “the point in a pregnancy when, in the professional judgment of the pregnant patient’s treating physician, the fetus has a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus with reasonable measures. This is determined on a case-by-case basis”; and “State” includes any governmental entity and political subdivision.
5. This Section is self-executing.
This language was approved by Republican Attorney General Dave Yost.
But now that the measure has both qualified for the ballot and doesn’t have to meet that arbitrary 60% threshold, the GOP-controlled Ohio Ballot Board wants to change that summary to:
A Self-Executing Amendment Relating to Abortion and Other Reproductive Decisions
The proposed amendment would:
• Establish in the Constitution of the State of Ohio an individual right to one’s own reproductive medical treatment, including but not limited to abortion;
• Create legal protections for any person or entity that assists a person with receiving reproductive medical treatment, including but not limited to abortion;
• Prohibit the citizens of the State of Ohio from directly or indirectly burdening, penalizing, or prohibiting abortion before an unborn child is determined to be viable, unless the State demonstrates that it is using the least restrictive means;
• Grant a pregnant woman’s treating physician the authority to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether an unborn child is viable;
• Only allow the citizens of the State of Ohio to prohibit an abortion after an unborn child is determined by a pregnant woman’s treating physician to be viable and only if the physician does not consider the abortion necessary to protect the pregnant woman’s life or health; and
• Always allow an unborn child to be aborted at any stage of pregnancy, regardless of viability if, in the treating physician’s determination, the abortion is necessary to protect the pregnant woman’s life or health.
If passed, the amendment will become effective 30 days after the election.
The tl;dr version is basically that every instance of “fetus,” the medically accurate word for a fetus, has been replaced with “unborn child,” a medically inaccurate and politically charged term for fetus.
Five original ballot measure petitioners and Ohioans United for Reproductive Rights have filed a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court challenging the altered language.
By the by, after Republicans swept the Ohio Supreme Court elections last fall, they have a 4-3 majority, so don’t get your hopes up.
… okay so I feel like I can’t talk about state Supreme Court stuff in both Wisconsin and Ohio without mentioning North Carolina, so a quick detour before we close out with a little bit of bad news and a little bit of happy news.
Late last week, Democratic North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Mike Morgan announced he’d resign during the first week of September instead of serving out the final 16 months of his term.
Sounds bad, right?
Actually, it’s not!
Morgan’s early retirement will allow Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to appoint his successor, maintaining the 5-2 GOP majority (thankfully, Cooper doesn’t have to worry about his appointment winning approval from the Republican-dominated legislature, which would absolutely tell him to go suck an egg).
This would allow Morgan’s replacement to go into the 2024 elections as an incumbent, giving them a better chance at winning.
And yes, that would still keep the 5-2 Republican edge on the court, but at least it maintains Democrats’ shot at winning back the court by [[sigh]] 2028.
And those odds are long enough as it is.
To take just a 4-3 majority, Democrats need to win four of the next five races, which include Morgan’s seat in 2024, Democratic Justice Anita Earls in 2026, and three Republican-held seats in 2028.
Speaking of Justice Anita Earls, the Republican-stacked Judicial Standards Commission is going after her for the terrible crime of [[checks notes]] speaking out about racial bias in her courtroom.
Earls made the statements at issue when responding to a study of advocates who argued at the state Supreme Court, which found that 90% of those lawyers were white and nearly 70% were men.
After being asked for her response, Earls “noted the lack of racial diversity among the court’s clerks and her colleagues’ disparate treatment of certain advocates at oral argument.”
She went on to say that doesn’t think that this was the result of conscious bias, but that “we all have implicit biases.”
Earls, by the by, is the only Black woman on North Carolina’s highest court.
The justice isn’t taking the attack lying down, though; on Tuesday, she sued the commission in federal court, arguing that their “investigation” broaches her free speech rights.
A GOP state senator from Georgia made a few headlines this week when he told “War Room” host Steve Bannon that failing to defund or otherwise punish the prosecutor who brought charges against Trump could lead to a “civil war.”
According to Sen. Colton Moore, the alternative to not defunding Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is “draw[ing] my rifle.”
This man makes laws
But cooler GOP heads seem to be prevailing in Georgia for the time being: Gov. Brian Kemp is shutting down demands that he call a special session just so Republicans can impeach or defund Willis, describing such efforts as “political theater.”
Importantly, Georgia’s GOP House Speaker is on Kemp’s side in this.
But efforts to punish Willis are unlikely to subside.
On Oct. 1, the newly created Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission will hold its first session.
Every member of the commission, by the by, is a GOP appointee.
The commission was established by a state law this past spring and is intended to be used as a way to punish locally elected district attorneys for refusing to prosecute certain types of crimes, such as simple marijuana possession or abortion-related offenses.
Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers in Georgia are reporting a rise in threats against them.
I promised to end on a positive note, and by gum, I’mma deliver.
This fall, Mississippi will elect its very first openly gay state lawmaker.
Fabian Nelson won a Democratic primary runoff election this past Tuesday for House District 66, a heavily blue seat where Republicans failed to field a candidate.
Mississippi’s legislature will remain extremely Republican after November’s elections, but progress is progress. (Democrats literally cannot win a majority in either chamber.)
Thank you, as ever, for hanging in.
Here’s hoping your Labor Day weekend is rad as heck.
Absolutely spend a little time In The Sunshine, if you can.
And take care of yourself.
We need you.