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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Camden: Expulsion of lawmakers rare

By Jim Camden
Published: April 19, 2023, 6:01am

When big news happens in another state’s legislature, it’s not long before someone calls or writes to ask, “Did that ever happen here?”

So it was when the Tennessee House of Representatives expelled two members, officially for a lack of decorum but more specifically for joining a loud protest demanding action on gun control while on the House floor. In that case, the alleged lack of decorum involved going to the well of the House without official recognition shortly before a recess was called, and using a bullhorn to help lead chants from people in the gallery. Since both legislators are Black and a white Democrat avoided expulsion, the issue has stirred controversy.

While legislative expulsions have happened in our region, they’ve been different in nature.

No member of the Washington, Idaho or Oregon Legislature has been ousted for a lack of decorum, although there’s no record of anyone bringing a bullhorn to the floor and joining in chants. Legislators frequently join protests outside the chambers and no one blinks.

Expulsion of members has been rare in the Northwest. It has only happened once in each state, although it has been discussed a few other times.

The only time a Washington legislator was expelled was in 1933. Newly elected Democrat Nelson Robinson was expelled from the House after narrowly winning a seat in a Seattle district.

Late in the campaign, Robinson had been charged with sexual assault of an underage girl. They had met in a local bar where he was handing out campaign literature. They spent time driving around the city, and when he brought her home to some irate relatives, she accused him of “having his way with her.” He confessed but later recanted, claiming nothing improper happened and she’d told him she was 18, but he’d done so to avoid a confrontation with the girl’s uncle who was brandishing a gun.

He was in jail on Election Day, won by about 100 votes and went on trial in December. A jury believed most of the girl’s story – although they didn’t believe her claim of being 12 years old – and after a day of deliberations found him guilty of inappropriate sexual contact with a minor who was at least 15. He was sentenced to prison, but an hour later was pardoned by then-Gov. Roland Hartley after the girl’s mother and her doctor provided sworn statements that no such assault had occurred.

A few days later some members of the King County delegation began pushing for Robinson’s expulsion because of his conviction on a crime involving “moral turpitude.” He was ousted on a 93-5 vote.

That’s the only expulsion from the Washington Legislature. The Senate refused to seat Lenus Westman, who had been elected in November 1940, when the new session started in 1941 because he’d once been a member of the Communist Party. Westman said he quit two years earlier; a majority of the senators didn’t care.

In 2020, House Democrats circulated a letter calling for the expulsion of Rep. Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley Republican who was the subject of a House investigation into allegations he was involved in planning political violence.

Shea, who denied the allegations and said he wanted to cross-examine any witnesses who made them, had been kicked out of the House Republican Caucus and lost his committee assignments, but Republican colleagues refused to sign the letter calling for his expulsion. Some said it wasn’t right to override the choice of the voters of Shea’s district.

Expulsion requires a two-thirds majority, and even with all 56 of their members other than the speaker signing the letter, Democrats were nine votes short. The proposal died and wasn’t revived the next year because Shea didn’t seek reelection.

The Shea resolution did reveal how rare expulsion is, because legislators said the procedure isn’t written down anywhere.

A veto-proof Republican majority in Tennessee expelled Democrats Justin Pearson and Justin Jones, who are both Black, on a party-line vote, while Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white legislator who joined in the protest, kept her seat by one vote. There were no racial overtones to any of the Northwest cases.